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BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's lower house of parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to block an investigation by state prosecutors of former Finance Minister Daniel Chitoiu who they suspect abused his power to further the interests of a private insurance company.
The European Union has repeatedly raised concerns about a failure to tackle rampant high-level corruption in Romania and Bulgaria, its two poorest members, which have been kept outside the passport-free Schengen zone over the issue since their 2007 entry to the bloc.
Deputies voted 248 to 108 to let Chitoiu, a deputy for the opposition Liberal party, keep the immunity to which he is entitled as a sitting MP.
Anti-corruption prosecutors asked parliament last month to waive his immunity so that they could investigate suspicions that in October 2013, Chitoiu pushed through an emergency decree to protect insurer Carpatica Asig from regulatory controls.
Prosecutors said the decree was aimed to rid the board of Romania's financial supervisory body (ASF) of a particular member who was tasked with supervising the insurance sector.
Dan Radu Rusanu, then head of ASF, has already been removed from office over the affair. Prosecutors believe he masterminded the ruse under which the government issued a decree reducing the size of the ASF board and raising the qualification requirements of its members, all with the aim of forcing the exit of the targeted member.
Under Romanian law, deputies cannot be prosecuted unless their immunity is lifted by a vote. Chitoiu, who resigned from his ministerial position on February 6, denies any wrongdoing and told his colleagues shortly before the vote: "I find myself in an embarrassing situation in front of you."
His resignation earlier this month was not ostensibly linked to the allegations against him. Liberal party sources told Reuters at the time that Chitoiu had to quit after losing the party's support for failing to keep them informed about a government plan to reschedule bank debts of low-income borrowers.
"This is a terribly embarrassing score. This is shameful," said political commentator Mircea Marian of Tuesday's result. "It shows clearly that there's a functioning majority in parliament capable of undermining prosecutors' efforts and curb their work."
Romania ranks only behind Greece and Bulgaria in terms of corruption in the 28-nation EU, according to Transparency International, and the European Commission has its justice system under special monitoring.
A European Commission spokesman declined to comment on Tuesday's vote, saying the commission did not comment on individual cases.
Last year, more than 1,000 people were convicted on corruption charges in Romania, a 41-percent annual rise.
Those tried included six ministers, five county council heads, 34 mayors and deputy mayors, as well as judges, lawyers and managers of state-owned firms.
Romania's chief anti-corruption prosecutor said last month her team had seen a sharp rise in political pressure to drop cases while they were investigating high-ranking officials.
There has been growing concern about respect for the rule of law in Romania, one of the European Union's poorest and most corrupt states, whose parliament tried to pass a law last year shielding lawmakers from graft investigations.
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels; Editing by Matthias Williams and Raissa Kasolowsky