June 8, 2018 / 12:38 PM / 4 months ago

Romanian court postpones verdict in leader's corruption trial

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s top court postponed on Friday a verdict in the trial in which the leader of the ruling Social Democrats stands accused of inciting other public servants to commit abuse of office, saying it needed more time to process details.

A fresh criminal conviction for Liviu Dragnea, who is already barred from becoming prime minister because of a previous conviction for vote-rigging, could weaken his grip on the country’s biggest party and the five-month old government.

Dragnea is accused of keeping two women on the payroll of a state agency in 2006-2013 even though they were employed by his party. He was a county council chief at the time.

Dragnea denies the charges.

The court said on Friday it will make a preliminary ruling on June 21. A final verdict may take months, analysts say.

Arguments about how to fight corruption in one of Europe’s most graft-prone states have dominated Romania’s politics since it joined the European Union just over a decade ago.

Adrian Basaraba, a political science professor at the University of Timisoara, said a second criminal conviction for Dragnea could prompt Social Democrat rivals to move against him.

“We may see some internal wars in the party ... a fresh conviction would be a wonderful opportunity for some to say the current PSD leader has eroded his legitimacy too much to govern the biggest party,” he added.

Dragnea is also under investigation in Brazil on suspicion of money laundering, and in a separate case in Romania on suspicion of forming a “criminal group” to siphon off cash from state projects, some of them funded by the European Union.

But the former regional development minister, who created a funding program for local infrastructure projects that has disbursed billions of euros since 2013 with limited government oversight, has the support of powerful provincial leaders.

At the start of 2017, attempts by Dragnea’s coalition government to weaken anti-corruption legislation triggered the country’s biggest protests in decades.

Romania has been dogged by political instability since shedding Communist rule in 1989, but investors have largely shrugged off the corruption cases so far.

Editing by Catherine Evans

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