BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian anti-corruption prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation against Deputy Prime Minister Sevil Shhaideh for suspected abuse of office in a land transfer case, they said on Friday.
The probe against Shhaideh, 52, is the first high-profile investigation faced by the nine-month old Social Democrat (PSD) government in one of the European Union’s most graft-prone member states.
Shhaideh, also a minister for regional development, is a close ally of PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who has received a suspended sentence for vote rigging and is currently on trial in a separate abuse of office case.
“I was called here and I was informed ... I am a suspect, I cannot say more because the investigation is ongoing,” Shhaideh told reporters outside the prosecutors’ headquarters.
“I will make use of all my rights so as to be able to analyze the documents with my lawyer.”
Prosecutors said in a statement that they suspected Shhaideh, at the time a deputy regional development minister, of helping in 2013 to illegally transfer 324 hectares (800 acres) of prime land near the Danube river from the state to the county council of Teleorman, which then leased it to private operators.
The transfer was done through government bills, which the prosecutors said contravened the constitution as well as legislation concerning state property and national waters.
Dragnea served as head of the Teleorman county council for more than a decade until 2012 and has had business ties to the region.
Prosecutors are investigating four public servants in the case and have asked parliament to approve an investigation into Rovana Plumb, a lawmaker and currently minister in charge of European funds. They said they suspected Plumb, who was acting environment minister in 2013, of complicity in abuse of office.
Under Romanian legislation, parliament must approve investigations against sitting lawmakers.
Transparency International ranks Romania among the European Union’s most corrupt states and Brussels, which keeps its justice system under special monitoring, has praised magistrates for their efforts to curb graft.
In August, the European Commission expressed concerns that a planned overhaul of the judiciary would undermine Romania’s progress. [nL8N1LA6DLC]
The overhaul, which would give the politically appointed justice minister more control over the judiciary, comes half a year after government attempts to weaken the crackdown on high-level graft triggered Romania’s largest street protests in decades.
Shhaideh, who comes from Romania’s small Muslim community, was Dragnea’s first pick for prime minister after last December’s parliamentary election, but the centrist president, Klaus Iohannis, rejected her nomination. [nL5N1EM134]
Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by Radu Marinas