BUCHAREST (Reuters) - A senior Romanian minister was convicted on Friday of electoral fraud over a 2012 attempt to impeach a president and political rival, a judgment that dealt a blow to Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s efforts to demonstrate to the EU a hard line on graft.
Regional development minister Liviu Dragnea was convicted of masterminding a campaign to use bribes and forged ballot papers to swing an impeachment vote against then president Traian Basescu, arch rival of Ponta’s ruling Social Democrats.
The court gave Dragnea, a powerful figure in Romanian politics, a one year suspended jail sentence, which spares him prison. He will, however, be banned from holding public office. The decision can be appealed.
Dragnea, 52, is the second member of Ponta’s cabinet felled by graft charges in the European Union state, after the finance minister was put under investigation in March and resigned.
Ponta suggested the ruling was politically motivated, “a symbolic decision to convict a political action”.
His trial has put renewed scrutiny on Romania’s performance in tackling corruption on a political and judicial level. Brussels keeps the country’s justice system under special monitoring.
While giving prosecutors high praise for their work, it has criticized Dragnea being allowed to remain in office while under investigation.
In July 2012, Ponta’s ruling Social Democrats and their allies tried to oust arch rival Basescu, from the presidency.
A referendum plunged Romania into a constitutional crisis and drew fire from Brussels and Washington who saw the rule of law undermined. The attempt ultimately failed as the turnout did not meet the threshold of 50 percent of all registered voters.
Dragnea’s conviction risks being an embarrassment for Ponta, who suffered a surprise defeat at a presidential election in November and who faces a general election at the end of 2016.
“A dangerous precedent has been set for organizing elections ... which can impact democracy and parties’ freedom to call people to the polls,” Dragnea, who denies any wrongdoing, told reporters after the verdict.
He said he had resigned his post as minister as well as that of executive president of the Social Democrat Party
In indicting him and 74 other people in 2013, prosecutors said he had told local party members and mayors to use any means, including bribes, to swell turnout. He had suggested county prefects set up polling stations in tourist resorts that were not registered constituencies.
When all else failed, prosecutors said, they forged voting papers.
“Dragnea tasked some of his close allies ... to do everything in their power, including by breaking the law, to get people to vote.”
They said Dragnea, as party secretary general, organized an illegal system by which local party members sent back real-time information about the turnout and results before polls closed.
A continuing anti-corruption crackdown has pointed to further graft in his party, with both his father-in-law and brother-in-law also under criminal investigation.
Finance Minister Darius Valcov resigned in March, accused of taking kickbacks in exchange for favoring a company for a public works contract.
“I don’t think there will be major political consequences for the party after the conviction, as they and Dragnea will play the ‘it was a political decision’ card,” said Mircea Marian, a political analyst.
Editing by Matthias Williams