Romanian court sentences former minister to six years in jail for graft

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - A Bucharest court sentenced a former government minister on Tuesday to six years’ jail for abuse of office and taking bribes, the latest in a string of high-profile convictions in one of the European Union’s most corrupt countries.

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Elena Udrea, a close political ally of former president Traian Basescu, who backed her failed 2014 presidential campaign, was a cabinet minister from 2008 to 2012. She can appeal the conviction.

Udrea, a 43-year-old lawyer, denied wrongdoing and accused prosecutors of bias and of being linked to the secret services.

Anti-corruption prosecutors said that as regional development minister in 2010-12 Udrea and people close to her demanded bribes from companies in exchange for ensuring they would be paid on time for public works contracts.

Investigators said she used some of the money to finance the center-right party she belonged to at the time, and also organized a private boxing event with ministry funds under the pretext of buying tourism advertising for Romania.

The European Commission, which keeps Romania’s justice system under special monitoring, has praised prosecutors and magistrates for their crackdown on high-level graft.

Seven other people were on trial alongside Udrea for bribery, tax evasion, money laundering and other crimes. Six were found guilty and sentenced. The court acquitted former economy minister Ion Ariton of charges of abuse of office and influence peddling.

Judges also acquitted Udrea of using forged statements to illegally tap EU funds, a third charge leveled against her.

Prosecutors’ investigations in recent years have showed mayors, county councillors, lawmakers and ministers favored certain companies for public works deals and demanding a percentage of the contracts as bribes.

In February, the newly elected Social Democrat government of Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu decriminalized several graft offences through an emergency decree. Massive countrywide street protests ensued, ultimately forcing it to rescind the decree.

The leader of the ruling Social Democrats, Liviu Dragnea, is on trial in an abuse of office case.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Robin Pomeroy