BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s Transport Minister Relu Fenechiu was handed a five year prison sentence for corruption on Friday, becoming the country’s first government minister convicted while in office.
The case, that Romania hopes will show the EU it is serious about tackling graft, dates back about a decade to when he controlled a group of companies that prosecutors said supplied sub-standard equipment to a state-firm.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta removed Fenechiu from office and assumed the role of interim transport minister until a successor is found.
Lack of progress in tackling graft and organized crime in Romania and Bulgaria has led to both being strictly monitored since entering the bloc in 2007 and being barred from joining the passport-free Schengen zone.
Romania sentenced ex-prime minister Adrian Nastase to two years for graft last year - becoming the most senior politician to be sent to prison since the 1989 fall of communism in Romania. He was freed after serving less than half the term.
A senior member of the Liberal Party, Fenechiu, who had denied the charge and plans to appeal the Supreme Court ruling, became a minister in 2012 in Ponta’s leftist coalition cabinet.
Prosecutors said state-owned power maintenance services company SISEE Moldova had been supplied dilapidated transformers and switches by a group of companies controlled by Fenechiu between 2002 and 2005.
The old equipment, manufactured in the 1970s and the 1980s, had been sold as new - producing an overall loss of 7.5 million lei ($2.2 million).
Anti-corruption prosecutors said they planned to appeal against the court’s decision and call for a harsher sentence.
($1 = 3.3887 Romanian leus)
Reporting by Radu Marinas