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Cell Door Slams on Romania’s Kingmaker

Many in Bucharest and Brussels are cheering, but it may be too soon to write off Liviu Dragnea.

by Ky Krauthamer 29 May 2019

It’s been a horrible few days for Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). First, the party suffered two electoral setbacks over the weekend, dealing blows to both its domestic and European agendas.

 

Worse news came on Monday as party leader Liviu Dragnea began serving a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence for arranging fake jobs for two party workers.

 

It’s a spectacular takedown for a man often dubbed in Western media as the most powerful politician in Romania, the puppet master behind a series of figurehead prime ministers. Dragnea has kept a firm grip on the party despite a previous conviction that barred him from holding high office, earning the enmity of the European Commission as the driving force behind a series of steps seen as offering legal protection to officials suspected of corruption.

 

Liviu Dragnea, left, and former Minister of Justice Tudorel Toader, right. Image via Dragnea's Facebook page.

 

“He is the person doing everything, telling all the ministers, the prime minister [what to do], they are all putty in his hands,” former Justice Minister Monica Macovei told The Guardian earlier this month.

 

The Teleorman Connection

 

Dragnea is a self-made man, lacking strong financial support from his family or a background in the old Communist Party machine. His political career began in his home county of Teleorman, in southern Romania, where he’s remembered as a practiced backroom dealer and power broker for the local branch of the PSD, Romania-Insider writes.

 

As the head of the Teleorman County Council, it was Dragnea who instructed the county welfare and child protection agency to hire two women who were simultaneously working for the local PSD office, also led by him. The two women were paid some 23,000 euros for work they never did, and for his part Dragnea was convicted and, on Monday, sent to prison.

 

Another deal he turned nearly two decades ago could end up having an even more vicious sting in its tail.

 

When in 2001, Dragnea approved the award of a road-mending contract to a county-owned company called Tel Drum. Not long afterward, the council approved the sale of Tel Drum to a friend of Dragnea’s.

 

“Afterwards, the company’s shareholders became secret, hidden behind bearer shares certificates, even as the company won public contracts worth hundreds of millions of euros. The money stemmed both from the Romanian budget and from the EU,” according to an April report by OCCRP. In total, Tel Drum over the years received “millions of euros” for EU-financed roadwork, says OCCRP.

 

Two years ago, Romania’s corruption fighting agency DNA accused the company of EU subsidy fraud. DNA also believes Tel Drum is ultimately controlled by Dragnea, although he denies having any relationship with company executives for at least a decade.

 

The Documents in the Case

 

The Tel Drum allegations set Dragnea at odds with the DNA – whose former chief prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, is under investigation in Romania but under consideration for the new job of chief EU prosecutor – and with the EU fraud office, OLAF, whose report spurred judicial proceedings against him in Romania, OCCRP writes.

 

A mysterious suitcase found in a field could become a key piece of evidence in another case nipping at Dragnea’s heels.

 

Journalists with the RISE Project, a Romanian investigative reporting operation, say the suitcase, supposedly found by a peasant in southern Romania, held documents establishing a link between Dragnea and Tel Drum, Euronews reported.

 

For now, though, things don’t look all that bad for Tel Drum. The Teleorman County Council has recently awarded the company two road-building jobs, together worth 23 million lei ($5.4 million), according to Romanian media reports cited by the crime monitoring group EU-OCS.

Ky Krauthamer is a TOL senior editor.
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