A startling new book, Basescu: The Shame of Romania, charts the course of the Romanian merchant and oceanic fishing fleets as they sailed across a sea of corruption, disappearing into their own Bermuda Triangle. It has been called “The greatest corruption case in the history of Romania.”
The thoroughly researched and documented report covers the information waterfront, from extensive media reports to court proceedings. It’s a tale of nearly 40 years of corruption, deceit and nepotism and old-fashioned fraud.
In his rise from ordinary seaman to ship’s captain in the communist system, with a possible detour through the Securitate, to mayor of Bucharest, transport minister and ultimately national president, “Traian Basescu has displayed an almost contemptuous disregard for the rule of law and an ongoing propensity for abuse of power,” says Jonathan Harper, author of the expose.
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The book is packed with revelations and questions about the record and performance of the deck hand who became president. Here are some of what it has to say:
• “The Fleet File” is the name given to the greatest post-communist scandal in Romania, and Traian Basescu was at the epicenter. The then-minister of transport was the highest ranking of 80 people charged in an investigation launched not by his political foes but by colleagues in his own Democratic Party (PD) while he was in office.
The charge: as Transport Minister he approved the 1991 sale of 16 ships by the government-owned Petromin Company to the Norwegian firm Klaveness “for one dollar a piece,” according to a report in Financiarul, the Romanian business publication.
• Petromin, with the 80 highest tonnage ships, was soon driven aground by poor management. A number of ships, worth tens of millions of dollars, were heavily mortgaged and wound up being sold off for a dollar each, and others were seized in foreign ports to meet unpaid debts. And Petromin was left with no ships and $20 million in debt to an Oslo bank.
• The collapse of the company and the disappearance of the ships occurred on the watch of Traian Basescu, who was not only Minister of Transport but also served as acting director of Petromin, raising questions of conflict of interest. The General Division of State Financial Control estimated the cost of Petromin’s mismanagement in the 1991-1999 period at more than $150 million.
• Prosecutors, trying to sort out the stupid decisions from the potentially criminal acts, charged Basescu with malfeasance in the deal in 1996, but charges were dropped for lack of evidence; a new investigation was held in 2004 by a non-partisan Parliamentary Commission.
• The Parliamentary Commission investigation of the scandal produced a 700-page document; the Commission, made up of 13 MPs from nearly every party “reached the conclusion that the President had broken nearly every constitutional provision possible,” according to the book, and “charged him with no less than 19 serious violations of the fundamental law.” However, the case was put on hold because of presidential immunity; as a result he may ever be held accountable in the disappearance of almost 300 ships, unless it is by voters in November.
• In December 1989 Romania had 286 seaworthy ships in its commercial maritime fleet, including about 190 in good or excellent condition, making it the ninth worldwide in commercial fleets. The post-revolutionary government divided them among three enterprises — Navrom, Romline and Petromin – all of which eventually sunk while their valuable fleets sailed into other hands
• Basescu, as Transport Minister, signed a letter of intent in 1991 with representatives of Petromin and Klaveness for the establishment of a Liberian-based Romanian-Norwegian joint venture — called Petroklav — with Basescu as a director. The company soon moved from Liberia to the Bahamas. The deal was built around 16 Romanian ships, 15 of which were to undergo technology upgrades. Klaveness was to manage the company. The ships were collateral in $109 million in loans from an Oslo bank to finance technology upgrades. By 1999 all the Romanian ships had to be sold to make payments on the loan – 10 were sold off and the other six were seized and sold.
• Prosecutors contend Basescu approved all these steps without getting approval of the Romanian government, as the law required, according Financiarul. Moreover, the newspaper added, Petromin did not receive a single dollar from the millions borrowed for the fleet improvements during the entire eight years.
• The book asks some critical the questions: Who was responsible for Romania losing its merchant marine fleet and winding up with a pile of foreign debts? Where are the ships today? How did some of the best wind up in the hands of some leading Romanian politicians. Who profited?
• Romania’s fishing fleet suffered a similar fate. Ships of the Romanian Company for Oceanic Fishing (CRPO), which was privatized and sold to Greek interests, were involved in smuggling activities, according to Financiarul.
• Cotidianul (10/17/07), the Romanian daily newspaper, called the Fleet File “The greatest corruption case in the history of Romania.” It “burst like a soap bubble,” thanks to an electronics engineer and an accountant digging through the 192 volumes and nearly 50,000 pages of the Fleet File; they were able to show that the sale of the 15 commercial ships belonging to Petromin cost the state more than $300 million, although some creative accounting by Petromin listed them as virtually worthless by discounting them for mortgages and depreciation, according to Cotidianul.
• A key figure in the scandal was Calin Marinescu, a director of Petromin who went on to serve under Traian Basescu in the Transport Ministry, according to Cotidianu, which reported, “The joint venture was thereby looted, and it served as a screen for hiding the fact that the entire management fee was collected by the Norwegian partner only, and such Norwegian partner paid big salaries to the freshly-appointed directors, Traian Basescu and Virgil Toanchina.” Marinescu is referred to as “Basescu’s man.”
• Throughout his career, questions have been raised about Basescu’s links to the Securitate, the security services of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and what role that may have played in his meteoric rise from lowly seaman to one of its youngest ship’s captains ever to political leader. Those links are understandably mysterious. Several sources quoted in the book suggest the speed of his rise and the nature of his assignments reflect the kind of pull that the intelligence service could assert for one of its favored.
• According to the “Allexperts.com” website, Basescu “was repeatedly accused of involvement in the Communist regime’s infamous Securitate, although no concrete evidence ever surfaced.”
• A number of his close associates from his earliest days as a sailor to today are past or present Securitate officers, many have held key posts in government.
• The Jurnalul National (1/30/08) attributes to “a former sailor” a report that “Basescu was made a ship master by the Romanian Communist Party, with the blessing of the secret service [Securitate] without having the necessary experience. “ Captains reportedly needed to have the consent of the Securitate to leave the country. That lack of experience may have contributed to a fire in the French port of Rouen that originated from Basescu’s ship, the Arges, and scorched 37 other ships, according to the Bucharest newspaper.
• There’s a suspicious twist to the case of Ovidiu Ohanesian, a Romanian-Armenian journalist with the daily newspaper Romania Liberia, was held hostage in Iraq for nearly two months in 2008. President Basescu sent Mohamed Yassin to Baghdad to negotiate the release of the journalists at a time when Yassin was “already being monitored by the SRI (Romanian Intelligence Service),” according to Gardianul, one factor apparently being his many trips to Arab countries, it added.
• The former captive thinks the kidnapping was organized by “a close circle around the Cotroceni (Presidential residence) consisting of officers, politicians and businessmen close to President Traian Basescu,” Jurnalul National reported. One of those charged in the kidnapping plot was Omar Hayssam, who Ohanesian believes had links to “a financial organization in Romania, which sponsored the terrorist organizations Hamas and Hizbullah,” and had ties to Yassin Mohamad, who the paper described as “a close acquaintance of President Basescu.”
• Numerous of allegations swirl around the President’s brother, Mircea Basescu. The book explores questions about his role in some of the scandals surrounding his brother. There have been media reports suggesting the first brother may have been involved in business deals that included smuggling arms to militant groups.
• The Centre for South East European Studies (CSEES) in its “SEE Security Monitor” quoted a Romanian journalist, Sorin Rosca Stanescu, that the President’s brother Mircea Basescu “is allegedly involved” in trafficking explosives with an alleged terrorist suspect. He referred to five ships from Thailand loaded with explosives and ammunition to be destroyed at Babeni military base in Valcea, Romania. The operation was coordinated by the brother with full knowledge, if not direction, of the president, he claimed. Instead of being destroyed, the cargo was repacked and exported to the Angolan rebel group UNITA via Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the report. He contends the deal was coordinated by Bakri Imad Abdul Reda “aka Imad Kebir,” of Romagro Cereal SRL, “the main importer of weapons and military equipment “ for UNITA in Angola. The same individual also “plays an important role in the financing of Hizbullah and the supply of weapons for that organization.” Mircea Basescu has denied the charges and threatened to sue the reporter for slander suit over this story.
• Over the years there have been charges that the Basescu family and friends have financially profited from various enterprises, public and private, going back to the days when the current president was a ship’s master, the mayor of Bucharest, the Minister of Transport and eventually president.
• Luxten Lighting, the company that ensures public lighting for Bucharest and several other Romanian cities, is very well connected– and not just to the electricity grid. Most notably: President Basescu’s youngest daughter, Elena, is employed by the company (a fact reportedly mentioned in company advertising), and Dan Ioan Popescu, the former minister of economy, is a business partner of Luxten’s owners. Media reports suggest those connections helped light the way to highly profitable real estate deals for land near a future highway crossroads. Did the company have inside information? One of the Bucharest mayors who oversaw and extended the lucrative Luxten contract was Traian Basescu.
• Members of Parliament and others have leveled many charges against the President, calling the Parliament “a wreck and in a state of clinical death,” saying the Government “serves the interests of special interest groups,” publicly telling prosecutors which cases he wants pursued, intimidating and insulting the Constitutional Court, accepting illegal wiretaps, and other instances of “abuse of power against the public interest,” according to Gardianul .
You can read all about this and much more in Basescu: The Shame of Romania and make your own conclusions.
For your copy of Basescu: The Shame of Romania by Jonathan Harper and published by the American Committee Against Corruption or for additional information, contact
[email protected]cansagainstcorruption.org or go to http://americansagainstcorruption.org