BUCHAREST (Reuters) - When the police came for Romanian anti-corruption judge Georgeta Buliga, she might have known that hiding the 3,000-euro bribe in her underwear drawer would not save her. Her time was up.
Buliga, involved with corruption and other cases as head of one of Romania's 15 regional appeals courts, was sentenced to 4-1/2 years for taking bribes after prosecutors raided her house and found money she accepted in return for ruling in favour of the husband in a divorce case.
It was a minor case but after a flurry of convictions of senior politicians and even a former prime minister in the last few months, an indication Romania may finally be getting more serious about a deeply rooted corruption problem. Some might be forgiven though for remaining sceptical over a country so long mired in government and commercial corruption.
"Last year and this, we registered the first cases of convictions for ex-ministers," Daniel Morar, head of the DNA anti-corruption prosecuting office, told Reuters.
"If we look at this rise as a reflection of corruption spreading, things are not good. But if we look at it as the reaction of state institutions to combat corruption this must be viewed as positive."
Romania is the second-poorest and viewed as the third most corrupt member of the European Union, which it joined in 2007. Brussels has repeatedly raised concerns about a lack of progress in convicting top-level officials.
It has kept Romania outside the EU's passport-free Schengen zone, along with neighbouring Bulgaria, and the bloc has progress on graft under special monitoring. It also undermines economic development in the most impoverished corner of the EU.
In its latest report on judicial reform, it praised Romania's efforts in convicting senior officials but said more were needed, including further cleaning up the judiciary, tougher sentences and better recovery of proceeds of crime.
The highest profile case was a two-year jail sentence for former prime minister Adrian Nastase. He would be the first former prime minister to be sent to jail since the fall of communism in 1989, but remains free pending an appeal.
Former agriculture ministers Ioan Avram Muresan and Decebal Traian Remes and several serving lawmakers have also been convicted, though many received suspended sentences or remain free until their appeals are heard.
Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, said the EU would not lift its special monitoring until it sees irreversible progress.
"Prosecutors do more than ever, but there's lot more to be done to attack systemic graft," said Mungiu-Pippidi. "Attacking systemic graft cannot be done only by repression."
Graft permeates Romanian society at all levels and it is common to pay cash gifts to secure medical treatment, essential paperwork from government offices and to pass school and university exams. A climate of impunity stems from the communist era, when the country was run by nepotism and cronyism.
The perception it is not being investigated or prosecuted has encouraged such practices and though the recent convictions are starting to send a message, it is important that those found guilty are actually put behind bars, analysts and diplomats say.
According to Laura Stefan, part of an EU team overseeing anti-graft policies across the bloc, there is some concern that Romania is making only cosmetic efforts and there are still backward steps with a parliamentary election due in November.
One example is a recent initiative by a member of the ethnic Hungarian UDMR party, part of the governing coalition, to decriminalise conflict of interest for MPs.
"The first conviction court rulings in big corruption dossiers have just emerged but black clouds tend to arise to cover Romania's anti-corruption drive," Stefan told weekly magazine Revista 22.
"Because of this, nobody in Europe really believes that reform is irreversible and the era when powerful people were not accountable for their deeds is over."
Nevertheless, procedures have been speeded up, there are new rules for judges at Romania's top court - including tighter checks and reviews of previous rulings - and parliament is debating a law which would make it easier to seize assets.
As the example of Buliga and the cash in the underwear drawer shows, cleaning up the courts is still a work in progress. Prosecutor Morar said about 30 magistrates have been sentenced during his mandate, which started in 2005. Other numbers are also starting to stack up.
Romania convicted 54 officials last year for corruption-related deeds in the allotment of EU funds, from 20 in 2010. The number of final convictions and jail terms handed out to officials both nearly doubled.
Opposition leader Victor Ponta, who is favourite to become prime minister after a November election, said Romanians do not have faith in the justice system but agreed it was changing.
"There has been a clear improvement in the last year. They have convicted people in office, not just people defeated in elections," Ponta told foreign media.
DETERRENT TO INVESTMENT
The shadowy nature of graft makes it difficult to assess its impact on the economy, but there are several indications it is a major factor holding back not only Romania but also other former communist countries in central and eastern Europe.
Tax evasion, which experts say is directly connected with graft, is worth some 10 percent of gross domestic product by the Fiscal Council, a panel of independent experts monitoring government policies.
"Without tax evasion ... we would have had budget revenues equalling 44 percent of gross domestic product or quite the European average," said its president Ionut Dumitru, who is Raiffeisen chief economist in Bucharest.
Graft is also a major deterrent to foreign investment, which was just 1.9 billion euros in 2011. More than a third of chief executives surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce said it was one of the top three obstacles to future investment.
"There are few things more important to a foreign investor than having the confidence that disputes over contracts will be resolved swiftly and predictably by the courts," British Ambassador Martin Harris said on his embassy blog.
(Additional reporting by Sam Cage)