BUCHAREST, Romania — When Laura Codruta Kovesi was in charge of Romania’s anticorruption agency, thousands of government officials and business leaders were successfully prosecuted in what became an important victory in the battle against graft in a country that ranks among the more corrupt in Europe.
But as an independent prosecutor, Ms. Kovesi also made powerful enemies. Romania’s justice minister, Tudorel Toader, instigated her removal from office last summer, accusing her of abusing her powers and damaging Romania’s image abroad by publicly drawing attention to the country’s corruption problems.
Now, Ms. Kovesi is in the running to be the first public prosecutor of the European Union, and Mr. Toader is leading a drive to scuttle her appointment. Earlier this year, Mr. Toader also proposed legislation that would allow politicians and others convicted of graft since 2014 to challenge the verdicts — something that could amount to an amnesty.
This struggle now playing out between two of the country’s leading judicial figures is a stark reflection of Romania’s muddled approach to corruption, which reaches the highest levels of politics and has festered for decades.
“I believe that the members of the selection committee don’t know the abuses committed by Laura Codruta Kovesi to the detriment of citizens, to the detriment of the rule of law,” Mr. Toader told journalists this past week after it was announced that she was the favorite among the three finalists for the European public prosecutor job.
Romania, which joined the European Union in 2007, has long struggled with entrenched corruption and has been criticized heavily in recent years for attacks on democratic values. The country has taken steps to rein in high-level graft, notably under Ms. Kovesi’s leadership of the anticorruption agency, which won it praise from the European Union.
But more recently, the governing Social Democratic Party has pushed through measures curtailing the judiciary’s independence.
Romania has been criticized for attacks on democratic values, moves that set off large street protests. Last year, riot police officers used a water cannon against demonstrators in Bucharest.CreditAdrian Catu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Toader’s proposal to allow challenges to corruption verdicts would likely benefit many politicians including Liviu Dragnea, the powerful leader of the governing Social Democrat Party who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for abuse of office a month before Ms. Kovesi was fired.
On June 21, Mr. Dragnea was found guilty of abuse of office for intervening to keep two of his party’s employees, who performed no state work, on the public payroll from 2006 to 2013, when he was a local council leader. The anticorruption agency — headed at the time by Ms. Kovesi — was instrumental in his prosecution.
Mr. Dragnea is appealing the verdict.
The public has pushed back against the government’s attempt to weaken the rule of law. In 2017, Romanians staged the largest street protests in a quarter of a century after an emergency decree was passed effectively decriminalizing low-level corruption. Antigovernment protests in Bucharest, the capital, last year turned violent when the police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds.
Ms. Kovesi served as chief prosecutor of Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate from 2013 to mid-2018. The agency was created at a time when Romania wanted to show that it was making strong efforts to tackle graft.
Since parliamentary elections in December 2016, however, the government has regularly attacked the agency — and Ms. Kovesi in particular. Critics point to the agency’s reliance on court-approved wiretaps and have suggested political motives behind some of its cases.
“What she was trying to do during her two mandates was to show that the prosecutors have no fear, that they are independent and that they can get final convictions and those convicted will pay,” said Bianca Toma, program director at the Romanian Center for European Policies, a Bucharest-based think tank. “Politicians will always, in any country, try to limit the power of those trying to investigate them.”
Ms. Kovesi is now in the running to lead the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, a new, independent agency tasked with investigating and prosecuting large-scale and cross-border crimes related to the European Union budget. The agency is expected to be operating by the end of 2020, with 22 of the bloc’s 28 member states signed up.
Ms. Toma said it was highly unusual for a member state to try to block one of its own citizens from such a powerful position in the European Union.
“It is even more unusual in the Romanian case, as this is not about politicians; this is about a high-level practitioner in the judiciary, so there shouldn’t be a place for politicians to play a role,” she said.
Ms. Kovesi could not be immediately reached for comment. But in an interview last June with The New York Times, before her ouster, she said that pressure on her office had increased “because of our investigations, because of our convictions.” She added that if the prosecutor’s independence were taken away, the job would become not merely more difficult, but impossible.
Mr. Toader said he would be sending information related to Ms. Kovesi’s dismissal to the justice ministers attending the European Union’s Justice and Home Affairs Council. She will be vetted this month by European parliamentary committees before a final vote.
Mr. Toader’s public opposition to Ms. Kovesi’s appointment has provoked strong reactions back home. The two largest opposition parties came out in support of her candidacy. Ludovic Orban, the leader of the largest — the National Liberal Party — urged Mr. Toader to stop his efforts to undermine her appointment, denouncing them as “harmful to Romania.”
Ms. Kovesi’s situation echoes, in some ways, that of Donald Tusk, the European Council president, who was re-elected in 2017 despite strong opposition from the government of his native Poland.
During a visit to Romania this past week, Gunther Krichbaum, a member of the German Parliament and chairman of its Committee on European Union Affairs, called on Mr. Toader to back Ms. Kovesi, noting that everything she had done was to fight for the rule of law and to combat corruption.
With the decision requiring only a majority vote, it is unlikely that Romania can block Ms. Kovesi’s appointment if it goes through.
“It’s an honor to have the chief antifraud prosecutor at the level of the Union,” said Monica Macovei, a former Romanian justice minister and now a member of the European Parliament. “It’s very bad for Romania itself, not only for the government, for them not to support a Romanian for such a position.”