I’m a little hesitant to write this piece because Victor Ponta officially took office on May 7, which means technically there are still a few days to go before he has been “leading” this country for a full two months.
Let’s review. In January 2012, as part of the agreement with the IMF (my article on this here) to further destroy Romania’s healthcare system, then-Prime Minister Emil Boc made severe cuts to the “SMURD” emergency ambulance service. The head of the SMURD, Rael Arafat, resigned in protest, prompting widespread outrage amongst the people of Romania. They took their outrage to the streets and a week later, Boc convinced Arafat to return to work for the government.
The then-opposition parties, PSD, PNL and PC had an established alliance under the umbrella name USL. The USL leaders then used the popular outrage to fuel even more street protests, sending thousands of their supporters out into the street to now call for President Basescu and the Boc government to resign. A couple of weeks later, Boc did resign and his PDL party, alongside their coalition UDMR partners, assembled a new government under Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu (MRU). And this is where Romanian politics really began to ride the crazy train.
The old Boc-PDL government truly had been rotten to the core and the USL had tapped into genuine popular anger at how they had been running the country. But the MRU government, shed of the odious weight of some of the PDL/Boc heavies (particularly the loathsome Elena Udrea), actually seemed to be a pretty good one in my opinion. The USL was out for blood though and once the initial grace period was over, they organized a parliamenetary putsch. Through bribery and cajoling, they convinced several PDL members to cross over and join the USL’s component parties (PSD/PNL/PC) and vote the MRU government out of office after just two short months.
And thus we get to the first days of May, when the now-majority USL demanded that the head of the PSD, Victor Ponta, be nominated by President Basescu as the new Prime Minister. Basescu did this and the Parliament confirmed him and Ponta took office on May 7 of this year. And yet even before he swore his oath, Ponta’s political vandalism had begun.
The Nominees Who Weren’t
As part of his officially proposed cabinet once he became PM, Ponta nominated Victor Alistar for the position of “Minister for Governmental Strategy, Transparency and Relations with Civil Society”. The “only” problem is that Victor was banned by law from holding government office until August 2012 due to a court ruling three years ago that determined he had profited from a conflict of interest. There was a minor media furor about Alistar and Ponta withdrew his nomination and yet a few weeks later Ponta made a declaration that he would bring Alistar into his government as soon as it was legally permitted.
A hideous old bat named Corina Dumitrescu was nominated for the position of Minister of Education. Dumitrescu is both the dean of Dimitrie Cantemir University (the largest and most prestigious network of private universities in Romania) as well as the head of a lobbying group that represents private universities. Her lobbying group was already engaged in court actions against the Education Ministry, which was an obvious conflict of interest.
After her proposed nomination, it was discovered that she had badly falsified her CV, crudely claiming that she had attended “Standford” University amongst other things. She resigned due to the media attention but it was later discovered she had also co-authored at least one academic paper that had been blatantly plagiarized.
The replacement found for Dumitrescu was a university professor from Oradea named Ioan Mang. Mang took the oath of office and became the first official Education Minister of Ponta’s government. A day later, it was discovered he had blatantly ripped off the research of others (all foreigners) and published it as his own academic paper. Later it was discovered that between he and his wife, as many as 10 different academic papers had been plagiarized wholly or in part by professor Mang. Although he claimed innocence, he resigned his ministerial position. I should add here that Mang is still employed by the government in Bihor (see below for more information on his plagiarism).
Daniel Constantin was nominated and confirmed as the Minister of Agriculture. Both Daniel and his wife, officially were previously each earning the minimum wage and were borderline destitute. Daniel Constantin however owes over 100,000 euros to Dan Voiculescu (USL senator) who coincidentally enough was in the middle of an ongoing court action against… the Ministry of Agriculture.
Mircea Diaconu was nominated and confirmed as the Minister of Culture despite the fact that he had an ongoing court action concerning his open nepotism while a member of the government (when he was a senator). Using his influence, he secured his wife a lucrative job as director of a theater, earning thousands of euros per month (average Romanian salary is less than 400 euros per month). The highest criminal court in Romania (ICCJ) ruled officially that he had indeed unduly used his influence and so Diaconu was forced, by law, to resign.
Titus Corlatean was nominated and confirmed as the Minister of Justice. Before taking office (but after he had been nominated) he made public statements that the ongoing criminal case against former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (see below) was “politically motivated” and questioned the validity of the proceedings.
Corleatean, previously the Foreign Minister, was involved in an earlier controversy involving Omar Hayssam, who fled to Syria while facing charges for ordering a kidnapping (for ransom) of three Romanian journalists in Iraq in 2005. The ransom money was then used to fund his escape as he was also facing charges in Romania for financial fraud. Hayssam fled the country (he is still listed on Interpol and is Romania’s #1 most wanted criminal) and remains safe in Syria in part because Corleatean refused to push for an extradition treaty with the Assad government. Hayssam had previously been a benefactor and fundraiser for the PSD party.
The Adrian Nastase Circus
Former Prime Minister and former leader of the PSD party, Adrian Nastase, had no fewer than three ongoing criminal cases against him at the time that Victor Ponta was confirmed as the new Prime Minister.
Nastase, however, hoped to escape justice in these cases because Ponta had been his golden boy for years. Nastase had brought Ponta up through the ranks of the PSD and had awarded Ponta his doctorate (in international law) back in 2003, when Nastase was at the height of his power. As soon as Ponta was confirmed in office, Nastase called on his former protege to help him out.
Ponta did just that, nominating a man named Adrian Constantin Balaban Grajdan to the post as director of the ISC (State Construction Inspectorate). Grajdan had previously been head of the ISC (starting in 2008) but had retired with the astonishingly large monthly pension of 8000 lei per month (nearly 2,000 euros).
On literally his first day in office as a Ponta appointee, Grajdan telephoned Adrian Nastase at 5:53 am and spoke to the former Prime Minister. A few hours later, Grajdan withdrew the ISC as a plaintiff in Nastase’s ongoing corruption case nicknamed the “Quality in Construction Trophy” case. The surreptitious phone call was discovered by the judges in Nastase’s trial and when questioned about it, Nastase admitted that Grajdan had called him but denied that any “conversation” had taken place.
After public uproar, Ponta removed Grajdan as head of the ISC and he has presumably retired again to receive his princely monthly pension although he is being “investigated” by the DNA (anti-corruption agency – see more below). What makes the Grajdan case even more bizarre is that it was Grajdan himself who had originally filed the paperwork years ago making the ISC a plaintiff against Nastase in the “Quality in Construction Trophy” case.
Despite these last-minute hijinks, on June 20, 2012, Nastase was found guilty of corruption in the “Quality in Construction Trophy” case and sentenced to two years in prison, effectively immediately. Nonetheless, Ioan Rus, Ponta’s Interior Minister, personally called Nastase to offer him a few choices on how he was to be transported to the prison.
From that point on, there is only speculation. Supposedly Rus felt that Nastase was suicidal and so dispatched a privately-operated ambulance to Nastase’s luxury residence “just in case” something happened. The police arrived some five hours later and supposedly stopped Nastase from killing himself with a handgun (it’s still unclear whether it was a .38 revolver or a 9 millimeter semi-automatic). Supposedly a police officer wrestled Nastase to the floor at the last minute and a shot went off, injuring Nastase in the neck (and possibly also the shoulder).
Supposedly the ambulance crew on stand-by then rushed into the residence and tended to Nastase’s wounds. Supposedly the family then took the time to dress Nastase in a pristine button-up blue dress shirt and tie an expensive (retails for $400) Burberry scarf around Nastase’s neck. Nastase was then transported to a plastic surgery clinic of a local hospital and not the trauma department.
Rus, Ponta and several USL leaders then blamed Basescu for Nastase’s supposed attempted suicide. Ponta rushed to the hospital and spoke with Nastase, a blatantly partisan move considering that Nastase was at this point a convicted criminal. Over 10 hours later, Nastase supposedly had surgery performed by two doctors, one a former PSD senator and one currently an honorary member of the Ponta government.
After nearly a week of legal wrangling, Nastase’s lawyers were unable to prevent their client from being transported to the prison in Rahova, where he now resides, albeit in the hospital wing. Nastase’s children as well as several USL leaders have continued to put the blame on everything, from the attempted suicide to the case itself, at the feet of Basescu. Most alarmingly (as noted above), several USL leaders have severely undermined the credibility of the case itself, stating that it was a political witch hunt and not based on valid criminal charges.
The Bizarre Case of the European Council Meeting
Almost from the beginning of his term in office, Victor Ponta began agitating that it would be he, and not President Basescu, who would represent Romania at the June 28 European Council meeting (involving all of the heads of state). In previous years it had been a non-issue as the President had been on amicable terms with the Prime Minister at the time.
The USL-controlled parliament then passed a “declaration” stating that Ponta would be Romania’s representative at the meeting. Basescu then held a press conference and pointed out that it was the Romanian Constitution which determined such things and that currently it stipulated that president was the head of the state and thus the one to represent Romania. Others pointed out that a parliamentary “declaration” has no legal weight and that the USL should pass a binding resolution (new law) if they wanted to modify the Constitution.
Nastase’s conviction and supposed suicide attempt fell just days before the issue was decided, fueling multiple nasty attacks by USL leaders and Ponta against Basescu. At one point, Ponta even declared that if Basescu tried to get on the presidential plane to fly to Brussels, he (Ponta) would prevent the ground crew from fueling it up. Basescu, in his otherwise dignified reply on the Constitutional issue at hand (concerning representation at the EU Council meeting) mocked Ponta by the nickname “dottore”, which lead to the following plagiarism scandal (see below).
A day before the EU Council meeting, the Romanian Constitutional Court (the highest court in the land concerning these issues) ruled that indeed it was Basescu who had the right to represent Romania. Ponta declared that he was going “anyway” and took off in the early morning hours to Brussels so that he could arrive there before Basescu did. Basescu, for whatever reason, remained in Romania and so Ponta got his wish even as he was being hounded by the European press concerning the ongoing plagiarism scandal.
The decision by the CCR (Constitutional Court) was attacked by many USL leaders, who undermined its legitimacy by saying that it was stacked with Basescu appointees and thus its decisions were politically-based.
You and Me, Baby, We Ain’t Nothing But Mammals
On June 18, both the German newspaper FAZ as well as the prestigious academic journal Nature published reports that accused Ponta of plagiarizing large sections of his 2003 doctoral thesis.
Ponta immediately fired back and said that the allegations were baseless and that it had been Daniel Funeriu who had been the anonymous source that had provided the relevant documents to these two publications. Funeriu had been the Education Minister in 2009 in the Boc government and is currently on President Basescu’s staff and is thus considered a political enemy by the USL.
Furthermore, since Basescu had mocked Ponta’s doctorate the week before, this was considered solid proof that Basescu and his ally Funeriu were behind the attacks and that therefore this was all about politics.
Despite widespread publication of the plagiarized passages (some of which are 35 pages in length without a single interruption, word for word identical to the original text, used entirely without attribution), Ponta and USL leaders continued to sustain the idea that the accusations were solely political in nature. Ponta also had his press office write a laughably illiterate letter in English to the journal Nature, accusing them of playing politics as well.
Further investigations by the press also turned up even more evidence of plagiarism, this time in a 2010 book co-authored by Victor Ponta in which inappropriate text is used, including passages describing former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as still being alive when he had in fact died six years earlier. The original text had been written before Pinochet’s death and thus demonstrated that not only had Ponta copied whole swathes of another author’s work but hadn’t even bothered to read it to make sure it made sense.
Back when Funeriu had been the Education Minister, he had organized a special committee to investigate cases of plagiarism and other instances of intellectual fraud, earning praise from the academic community around the world, including from the journal Nature (in January 2011 they did an interview with Funeriu). This committee was called the CNATDCU or “National Council for Verifying Titles, Diplomas and University Degrees”.
Last week, on June 29, the CNATDCU convened and officially determined that Ponta had plagiarized a large portion of his doctoral thesis.
Immediately the USL went into overdrive. First, interim Education Minister Liviu Pop stated that a 2/3rds quorum of the CNATCDU must be present before any of their decisions are binding, which Pop calculated to be 14 members. Failing basic math, Pop failed to take into account that 13 members of the CNATCDU had been present, just slightly more than the required 2/3rds necessary (there are 20 total members).
Then Liviu Pop switched tactics, saying that the CNATCDU’s decisions were “null and void” because they had failed to follow procedures, saying that they had only been empowered to review doctoral thesis written in 2012 and were not able to rule retroactively on those written in years past. Despite Pop’s quibbling, both the journal Nature and newspapers in every single European language reported on the CNATCDU’s finding that Ponta was indeed a plagiarist.
The CNATCDU had convened their meeting at 9:00 am on Friday. By 11:00 am, Liviu Pop had issued an “emergency decree”, which stated that the CNATCDU would henceforth consist of an additional 25 members (bringing the total to 45), to be composed of members picked by the government, obviously meaning that Ponta could now stack the committee with his allies, which will now be able to outvote all of the original members.
Furthermore, Pop then stated that the Education Ministry’s own “National Ethics Council” would be the ones to determine future plagiarism cases (including that of Ioan Mang, who still has not been formally accused). The members of the Ministry’s National Ethics Council are all appointed by the Education Minister at his/her discretion.
Other USL loyalists made statements to the press to try and obfuscate the issue, including the head of the prestigious Babes-Bolyai University, who stated that only a panel of “experts” could properly evaluate Ponta’s thesis and that these experts could then pass the case along (if necessary) to the CNATCDU or other competent authority for a final verdict.
Normally, the parliament passes (legally binding) legislation which must follow procedure before it comes into effect. New laws, for instance, must pass both the “House” (Parliament) as well as the Senate and then be signed by the president before they come into effect.
Parliament however does have the ability to issue emergency decrees (Rom: ordonanta de urgenta) which take effect immediately but then must be validated through the normal procedures. The USL-controlled parliament has used these “emergency” orders continuously over the past 2 months.
The first such “emergency order” was wresting away control of the ICR (Romanian Cultural Institute) from the president to that of the parliament, ostensibly because there were fears that the ICR was misspending its funds. The head of the ICR is well-known to be an ally of President Basescu and the takeover of the ICR is seen as yet another casualty in the political war between the USL and Basescu.
Again, this scandal was reported in newspapers and journals around the world, with almost unanimous worldwide criticism against the Ponta government’s move (Variety compared Ponta’s decision to that of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu). Even the king of Norway weighed in against Ponta, bringing ridicule and scorn onto Romania’s reputation.
Another “emergency order” was issued by the Parliament to assume control of the Monitorul Oficial, which had previously been operating on an autonomous basis. In Romania, no court decision, no law, no orders and no governmental decrees are officially binding until they have been published in the Monitorul Oficial (it is identical in nature to the Federal Register in the USA).
This move was prompted by the CCA’s decision that Basescu should represent Romania at the June 28 EU meeting. Believing that if the decision was not published, it was not legally binding, the USL-dominated parliament seized control of the MO and delayed printing its ruling until after the summit was over.
The parliament then used their new control over the MO to rush through the publication of Dan Voiculescu’s resignation as senator, thus making it official as soon as possible. This was important because once Voiculescu was no longer a member of the Senate, his ongoing criminal trial involving money laundering would be transferred to a lower court, which will greatly delay a final verdict and where he is seen as presumably having a better chance of a favorable outcome.
War on the President
On June 25, the USL-led parliament passed legislation that stated that future Parliamentary legislation could no longer be contested in the CCR (Romanian Constitutional Court). This means that if the Parliament passes a new bill into law, it is now impossible to take that law into the CCR and get a legal ruling on whether it is constitutional or not.
This new law was passed precisely so that later this week (as USL leader Crin Antonescu has explicitly stated), the parliament can suspend the president from office “without interference”. Currently, the parliament has the right to suspend the president only when the president has violated the Constitution, the proof of which can be taken before the CCR for judicial review. The new law will allow the Parliament to suspend the president with a simply majority vote (of members present at the time) and no specific reason is necessary.
It should be noted that Basescu, first elected in 2004 (defeating Adrian Nastase) was suspended by the parliament in 2007. Following the laws at the time, a public referendum was held and the public returned Basescu to office (where he was re-elected in 2009 for his final term, which will expire in 2014).
The USL-dominated Parliament has also passed a law which states that, in case of a public referendum on the (future) suspension of the president, only the majority of votes cast (50% + 1) are needed to affirm the removal of the president from office. The previous law stated that a majority of the electorate (eligible voters) must affirm the suspension, a much higher threshold to overcome.
Stacking the Votes
Prior to the nationwide elections for local offices (mayors, etc) held on June 10, the USL-dominated parliament changed the law to a “first past the post” system. This means that the candidate which received the most votes, even if it was less than 50% of votes cast, would be declared the winner and no run-off elections would be held. In several constituencies, a variety of minority parties thus “split” the vote, allowing USL ticket candidates to win without a clear majority.
The USL-dominated parliament also passed a law that proposed what is called the “uninominal” vote for the upcoming elections in the fall for nationwide offices (Senators and members of the House of Representatives). Under the “uninominal” voting system, the individual who receives the most votes is thus elected. Furthermore, the legislation provides that any party which receives at least 7% of the votes in any given jurisdiction will be awarded a seat even if that candidate did not win the election.
Under the current system, known as the “party list” system, the number of seats in the parliament is determined by the percentage of votes the party received nationwide (as long as they cross a minimum threshold percentage).
There are advantages and disadvantages of both systems but the USL is backing the “uninominal” system because once again they feel that in areas where the vote will be split, their local candidate will be elected and thus their political party will be represented in the parliament with more members proportionally than the percentage of votes they actually won nationwide.
The CCR however has ruled that the “uninominal” system, at least how it was written by the USL-led parliament, is unconstitutional. This ruling plus the CCR’s ruling that Basescu would represent Romania at the June 28 summit has led to increasing public attacks by Ponta and other USL leaders against the CCR, weakening its legitimacy and undermining its credibility.
Resigned to Not Resign
In an interview with the prestigious Spanish newspaper El Pais while at the June 28 European Councl meeting, Ponta stated categorically that he would resign if he was found guilty of plagiarism.
Returning home the day of the CNATCDU meeting, Ponta then declared their decision was invalid and thus he would not resign. He then bizarrely proposed to Basescu that if the president resigned, he (Ponta) would resign as well.
Fight Fire With More Smoke
On top of all the scandals, scorn, ridicule and negative attention that the Ponta government has brought down on this country over the past two months, several important issues have been swept under the rug.
To begin with, it is clear that there were some rather egregious abuses by the former Boc government. I’ve seen some pretty compelling evidence that the Boc administration used Posta Romana (Romanian Postal system) as their own cash cow, funneling millions of euros into the pockets of their friends and allies. The Posta is currently on the edge of bankruptcy and there are plans (fully backed by the IMF) to sell it off to the highest (private) bidder. Nonetheless, because of all of the scandals and childish behavior of the USL government, even serious investigations into past abuses are ignored or downplayed.
Indeed, the leaders of the USL have made accusations against several PDL leaders, from Emil Boc to Elena Udrea to Andreea Paul Vass, of plagiarizing academic papers that they have authored in the past. I’ve yet to see any hard documentation of these allegations but even if they are ultimately proven to be true, right now the accusations themselves have little credibility coming from the mouths of known plagiarists themselves.
And although Basescu is teetering on the edge of political annihilation, some of his allies have remained incredibly resilient. Over this past weekend (July 1), Laura Codruta Kovesi pulled a surprising technical move against Corlatean, the Justice Minister.
Kovesi is currently the “Attorney General” of Romania, the chief magistrate of the country’s highest criminal court (ICCJ), a position she’s held since 2006. However, her term as chief magistrate is for 3 years and then must be renewed and approved by the Minister of Justice. Well, her last 3-year mandate expired over the weekend and she then “self-nominated” herself for an “emergency” six-month extension in office.
Not only that, but she then gave a 6-month “emergency” extension to the three chiefs of the DNA (National Anti-Corruption Directorate). It’s worth noting here that Kovesi clearly plagiarized her own doctoral thesis (I’ve seen the documents) but has yet to come before an official board for a ruling.
With both a clear case of plagiarism against her, her “self-appointed” extension in office (as well as her DNA buddies) as well as her known sympathies to Basescu and the PDL party, why has Justice Minister Corleatean failed to take action? He certainly has the right to appoint his own “attorney general” (Rom: procuror general) and DNA chiefs. But right now Romania is on the verge of being accepted into the Schengen zone, which requires that Romania conform to the EU’s Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification. Romania must therefore “prove” that its judicial system is fair and effective.
Kovesi and DNA chief Daniel Morar are both beloved allies of the American government (as Wikileaks revealed) and they are widely seen throughout Europe as “fair and impartial”. Indeed, Nastase’s conviction on a DNA case was hailed as “excellent progress” by the European Union and United States. One of the DNA chiefs that just got a 6-month extension from Kovesi is currently investigating three police officers and one doctor in the Nastase “suicide attempt” case. Therefore Kovesi knows that Corleatean dare not rock the boat by removing her or her allies from office despite having both the legal ability and moral justification for doing so.
And last but not least, at yesterday’s confirmation ceremony instating Ecaterina Andronescu as the new Minister of Education, President Basescu was seen carrying a red folder. The USL is now claiming that it contains one more “weapon” which Basescu intends to use against the USL in an effort to hang onto his job.
Hang onto your hats because this ride is far from over…