Moldova accuses tycoon of involvement in $1 billion fraud

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova’s Prosecutor General said on Monday that one of the country’s richest people, Vladimir Plahotniuc, had been charged with involvement in the theft of $1 billion from Moldovan banks in 2014-2015.

FILE PHOTO: Leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova Vladimir Plahotniuc delivers a speech during a rally demanding a creation of parliament coalition, in Chisinau, Moldova June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo

Plahotniuc left Moldova for the United States last year after his Democratic Party lost power in an election. Representatives for him were unavailable for comment on Monday although his lawyers last year denied he was involved in the theft.

Known locally as the “theft of the century”, the scandal saw the equivalent of an eighth of the impoverished former Soviet republic’s gross domestic product stolen from three of its largest banks.

The scandal triggered street protests, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union froze aid, the leu currency plunged to record lows and inflation climbed into double digits.

The prosecutor’s office said the criminal case against Plahotniuc was opened on Monday and the charges included creation of an organised criminal group, extortion and fraud.

Alexander Stoeanoglo told a news briefing the investigation had irrefutable evidence that Plahotniuc was one of the main beneficiaries of the theft.

“We found that it was his firms ... that received loans from Banca de Economii in the amount of more than $100 million,” Stoeanoglo said.

Banca de Economii is one of the three Moldovan banks that were victims of the crime.

Moldova has already jailed former prime minister Vlad Filat and businessman Veaceslav Platon in connection with the scandal, in which money was for year siphoned overseas through dubious loans, asset swaps and shareholder deals.

It is unclear how the case against Plahotniuc might affect the political situation in Moldova, where a presidential election is expected in the autumn, and the third government in a year may resign this month.

According to local media, Plahotniuc’s supporters have about 20% of the seats in parliament.

Reporting by Alexander Tanas, writing by Pavel Polityuk, editing by Giles Elgood