* Albania central bank board proposes sacking governor
* Deputy Elisabeta Gjoni to work as acting governor
By Benet Koleka
TIRANA, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Albania’s central bank board has proposed to parliament that governor Ardian Fullani be sacked after his arrest in connection with the theft of 713 million lek ($6.63 million) from the bank’s vaults by an employee, the board said on Sunday.
Fullani’s fellow board members argued he had “violated ethical rules and heavily damaged the interests of the Bank of Albania”.
“We believe the absence of the governor does not create an institutional vacuum in the management of the institution since the law clearly enables the first deputy governor to take over the governor’s competences,” the board statement said.
Elisabeta Gjoni, the first deputy governor, will now be the acting governor.
Fullani was arrested on Friday evening on charges of “abuse of office” and the bank’s inspector general, Elivar Golemi, was held too, the 19th person at the bank to be prosecuted over the theft.
The prosecutor’s office said Fullani had failed to plug gaps in oversight at the treasury due to a lack of personnel and regulations, all of which had made the theft possible. He risks a seven-year jail sentence if convicted.
A court in the capital Tirana ruled on Sunday that he should await trial in jail.
Maksim Haxhia, Fullani’s lawyer who met him in court on Sunday, told Reuters Fullani declared himself “absolutely innocent” of the charges.
Haxhia said the charge was a “dangerous precedent” and the order to await trial in jail was so tough it was “ridiculous”.
“The head of an institution can never be held responsible when someone else has admitted a crime. We have an actual person admitting it. Why should the top director pay?,” Haxhia said.
“This is a very dangerous precedent,” he told Reuters by phone.
Fullani himself had not commented on the central bank’s board proposal to parliament to sack him, Haxhia said.
“Actions taken in this way make everything else very clear - there was no other simpler way to remove Fullani from his job,” Haxhia told Reuters.
The arrests come five weeks after a worker at the central bank admitted to stealing money over the course of four years, taking new bank notes printed in Switzerland when they arrived at his workplace and replacing them with old books.
Prosecutors said Fullani had not proposed a deputy governor for several years, creating a vacuum in the hierarchy meant to supervise the use of banknotes in the vault. They said that as chairman of the bank’s supervisory board Fullani had failed to win approval for rules on the functioning of the treasury, which also made the theft possible.
The six-member board, with Fullani as chairman, ruled against his sacking by five to one soon after the theft was discovered in late July.
Defending his record at that time, Fullani said the bank itself had denounced the theft. Vault employee Ardian Bitraj said he had confessed himself after stealing over four years, even betting large sums on the soccer World Cup games in Brazil.
Prime Minister Edi Rama and President Bujar Nishani met on Sunday and agreed to work to strengthen the bank’s independence while guaranteeing higher standards of professionalism there, Rama’s office said.
Albania’s 1998 constitution enshrines the independence of the central bank and backing from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have helped the central bank to pursue a monetary policy largely independent of government pressure. (1 US dollar = 107.5500 Albanian lek) (Reporting By Benet Koleka; Editing by Hugh Lawson)