Romanian political class rocked by Microsoft bribe scandal
By Michael Bird
Romania’s political and business class has been rocked by a bribery scandal involving distributors selling Microsoft products, that has incriminated nine former ministers ahead of a crunch presidential election in November.
The scandal involves tens of millions of euros which have been allegedly hidden in off-shore accounts linked to politicians - and comes the day before campaigning begins for a new head of state.
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Revelations are causing discomfort for presidential candidates Victor Ponta, prime minister and leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), and Elena Udrea of the Popular Movement (PMP), as they involve some of their senior party figures and close friends.
Politicians who are, or have worked as, MEPs are also named in the investigation spearheaded by prosecutors from Romania’s National Anti-corruption Department (DNA).
“The turmoil generated by this case is bound to have a powerful effect on the elections,” says anti-corruption specialist at NGO Expert Forum, Laura Stefan. “Cynicism will rise as all political parties seem to be hit in one way or another by the investigation.”
The DNA has filed a request to lift the immunity of serving MPs accused of corruption, but parliament has delayed this precisely at the moment when the legislature closes temporarily for the presidential campaign period.
“The decision of the MPs to leave for vacation before discussing the requests to lift immunity of their colleagues is yet another blast to Romania’s judicial independence,” adds Stefan. “Once again the parliament acts as a defender for allegedly corrupt politicians.”
The bribe and money laundering system, which began around 2003, allowed the state to circumvent public auctions for IT services and allowed Microsoft to sell their licenses for their operating systems at elevated prices to the state through a third party.
The network also involved the state buying computers and software from private firms for public education at vastly overblown prices.
The accusation is that, using a complex network of intermediaries, companies would pay a kick-back to politicians through off-shore accounts.
At the heart of this network is Claudiu Florica, a former representative of Fujitsu Siemens for Romania, the alleged mastermind of the kickback operation.
Bribe-taking allegations are targeted at former Ministers of IT&C, Gabriel Sandu, Dan Nica (who is now an MEP) and Adriana Ticau (a former MEP), former education ministers Alexandru Athanasiu and Ecaterina Andronescu and former finance minister Mihai Tanasescu.
Andronescu won a seat as an MEP in the last European elections, but stood down to remain a senator in Bucharest. “I have not asked for or taken any money,” she told Realitatea TV.
Former ministers of education and IT&C, Daniel Funeriu and Valerian Vreme, are accused of abuse in service. Both have resigned their positions within Udrea’s party, the PMP.
Under suspicion is also Serban Mihailescu, a minister co-ordinator in the early 2000s. He is accused of money laundering.
Current prime minister Ponta’s name appears in a witness statement.
Back in 2004 the project mastermind Claudiu Florica is quoted as meeting with Ponta and allegedly asked for his influence on state deals in exchange for supplying computers to the youth division of the Social Democratic Party.
However the DNA stated that presidential candidate Ponta was not under suspicion in the case at the present time.
The same witness statement also accuses senior figures of major IT international brands in Romania of influence peddling.
"This case of corruption is significant as it involves all the political class, regardless of colour, at the highest level - and - if witness statements are true - many of the most important IT companies on the international market," says IT&C journalist at Romanian news site Hotnews, Adrian Vasilache.
The investigation is likely to take months - if not years - to complete, according to legal experts.