Anticorruption prosecutors have started an inquiry into Deputy Prime Minister George Copos' alleged illegal business deals with the state owned lottery company.
Copos, who is the richest member of the government, is under investigation in relation to the alleged illegal acquisition of a commercial area by the Romanian Lottery from Ana Electronic, a group of companies owned by the politician.
The move comes as several members of the former government and the current governing coalition are under scrutiny for alleged illegal business activities or for illicitly acquired property.
The deputy prime minister is likely to be summoned to the National Anticorruption Department at the beginning of next week to answer questions about the transaction, legal sources said, without providing further details.
Prosecutors are also investigating the head of the National Lottery and a shareholder in Ana Electronic.
According to investigators, as a result of the illegal transactions, Copos caused about 1.5 million euros in losses to the state. Prosecutors also believe Copos cannot claim parliamentary immunity to escape being called to account for his actions, as he is charged with acts he is believed to have carried out before becoming a member of the government.
Besides the alleged illegality of the transaction involving the Romanian Lottery, prosecutors also said the two sides had avoided paying the taxes due over the deal.
The investigation is mainly focused on the purchase of a well-rated commercial area in 2004 from Ana Electronic by the Lottery.
The allegations come as several parts of the media recently denounced Copos's relations with the Romanian Lottery, accusing the deputy prime minister of having gained important amounts of money from illegal business dealings with the Lottery. For years, the Romanian state put money into Copos's pockets through the Lottery, according to a recent report in daily Gardianul.
The institution is led by Nicolae Cristea, known as Copos's protege, according to the newspaper. The Lottery reportedly bought dozens of buildings from Ana Electronic for inflated prices, the publication writes.
Copos, a leading Conservative member and a famous businessman, is the wealthiest member of the current government, with a fortune worth over 200 million euros. He is involved in business activities in a wide range of fields, from soccer to electronics and mobile phones.
Contacted by Realitatea TV, Copos said the transaction the investigation is focused on took place in the summer of 2004, while he had no political positions, but was merely a businessman.
He said he had no doubts or fears about the investigation's outcome, expressing his confidence that the charges will not be confirmed.
Copos added that he is eagerly awaiting the investigation, to prove that the allegations are wrong, and added that if the inquiry is inconclusive, he will expect public apologies from anticorruption prosecutors.
Meanwhile, Conservatives refused to comment on the accusations leveled against Copos. A spokesman for the party, Bogdan Ciuca, said the deputy prime minister is under investigation by anticorruption prosecutors for his business activities, not for his activity as a member of the Conservative Party.
"His presence at the Anticorruption Prosecutors Department is not the result of a political action," Ciuca said, expressing his confidence that Copos will manage to clarify the situation.
He also refused to make any comments as to whether the investigation could be politically motivated, saying he did not want to make any statements without knowing the details of the case.
This is the first time such serious official charges have been leveled against a member of the government, according to a journalist for daily Gandul, Adrian Ursu.
The journalists said he doubted the investigation had come as part of the wider campaign obviously launched against several state officials suspected of wrongdoings.
"This has more to do with the fact that the date of the European Commission's next country report, due in May, is drawing near," said Ursu.
The European Commission's previous report called on Romania to step up the fight against corruption and produce visible results as regards high-level corruption cases.
Subsequently, the Justice Ministry and the government pledged to prosecute all those involved in high-level corruption, to avoid the triggering of the safeguard clause, which would postpone Romania's EU accession by a year. Romania is due to join the European Union on January 1, 2007.