Romania's PM Victor Ponta charged in corruption probe

 Romanian PM Victor Ponta leaving the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (DNA) headquarters on crutches.
Romanian PM Victor Ponta leaving the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (DNA) headquarters on crutches. PHOTO: EPA

BUCHAREST (AFP) - Romanian prosecutors on Monday charged Prime Minister Victor Ponta with several counts of corruption, piling pressure on the embattled politician to resign.

Ponta became the highest-ranking official to be swept up in a major drive by the DNA anti-corruption agency, which has seen dozens of former politicians and judges convicted over the past several years in one of Europe's poorest and graft-plagued countries.

Ponta was charged with fraud, tax evasion and money laundering dating back to 2007-2011, before he became prime minister in 2012, the DNA said, adding that some of his assets have been frozen pending the outcome of the case.

The announcement came shortly after the 42-year-old hobbled on crutches through a crowd of reporters into DNA headquarters to face prosecutors over the graft probe that was opened against him in June.

Sources said he had refused to answer prosecutors' questions because he was waiting for the results of an official financial inquiry.

"I will come back in August when the assessment will be ready," the centre-left premier said.

 

The investigation had sparked calls for Ponta to resign, but he has refused to do so, staunchly denying the allegations and promising to cooperate with the probe.

After returning to work on Thursday following a month-long stay in Turkey for a knee operation, Ponta announced on Facebook Sunday that he was stepping down as head of the Social Democrat Party (PSD) while he fought the corruption allegations.

Some of Ponta's allies expressed dismay at his announcement.

"This is undoubtedly a mistake on the part of Victor Ponta, he should have discussed this with his staff," said the former president of the Social Democrats, Ion Iliescu.

Prosecutors also suspect Ponta of conflict of interest during his time as premier. But that probe was stymied when parliament, where Ponta's party has a comfortable majority, refused last month to lift his immunity from prosecution.

The prime minister's legal troubles prompted a fresh crisis in the European Union's second poorest nation, where Ponta's rival, President Klaus Iohannis, and the opposition have called on him to step down.

A defiant Ponta said he intends to remain prime minister.

"I will continue to perform my duty as prime minister for the PSD and for the millions of Romanians that support us," Ponta said on Facebook.

String of investigations

The money laundering and tax evasion allegations relate to Ponta's activities as a lawyer.

Ponta is accused of receiving the equivalent of around 55,000 euros ($61,000) from Dan Sova, a political ally and member of parliament suspected by prosecutors of abuse of power but who also enjoys immunity.

This probe is the latest in a string of investigations by the DNA - an anti-corruption agency within Romania's prosecutor's office - that have cost several prominent Romanians their jobs in recent years.

Under the leadership of Laura Kosevi, a 42-year-old former basketball player who took the helm in 2013, the agency upped the pace on anti-graft measures started by her predecessor.

Last year marked a record year for the agency, when it sent more than 1,100 people to court over graft allegations and had some 10,200 cases under investigation.

It also opened the highest number of new cases since it was set up in 2002.

Analysts say the setback for Ponta and the Social Democrats could mark the beginning of a move towards a conservative majority in parliament, led by Ponta's rival Iohannis.