March 13, 2015 / 5:17 PM / 4 years ago

Romanian prosecutors launch criminal investigation into finance minister

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian prosecutors said on Friday they had launched a probe into Finance Minister Darius Valcov, accusing him of favouring a company for a public works contract in exchange for about 2 million euros while in his former post as a mayor.

Valcov had urged a committee awarding the contract to bend the rules in favour of the company, a statement by the prosecutors said. Valcov told reporters as he left the anti-corruption agency’s office in Bucharest that he had not been charged.

The probe is the latest in a string of high-profile investigations and arrests in Romania, which is seen as one of the European Union’s most corrupt members but whose prosecutors have won praise from Brussels for their crackdowns.

The investigation is another blow to Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s government, after he was surprisingly defeated in a presidential election last November. The next general election is due at the end of next year.

It was not immediately clear whether Valcov would continue as finance minister while being investigated. The prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“Anti-corruption prosecutors have started a criminal investigation against Darius Valcov, mayor of Slatina at the time and currently finance minister, in connection with charges of abuse of power,” the statement said.

“Evidence shows ... as a result of an understanding with a businessman, the suspect Darius Valcov received approximately 2 million euros ($2.10 million) during 2010-2013, part of this sum being received directly, in cash, and 2.48 million lei ($585,000) through some firms as intermediaries.”

A former two-term mayor turned senator in parliament, Valcov took over as finance minister in December in a cabinet reshuffle following Ponta’s defeat in the presidential election. He had previously been the budget minister, a portfolio that was merged with the finance ministry post when he assumed his new role.

Prosecutors said a firm was awarded several projects to expand and revamp the water supply of Slatina and several nearby towns and villages on Valcov’s watch. Neither the firm nor its owner were named in the statement.

Prosecutors have launched corruption investigations since last year into a range of people including the head of a midsize political party, one of Romania’s most senior judges, and Ponta’s own father-in-law.

About 7 percent of lawmakers elected in 2012 have been convicted or are under investigation for graft.

Valcov’s ministry announced plans for sweeping tax cuts in 2016-2019 in February and is also gearing up for potentially difficult talks in April with the International Monetary Fund over the IMF’s ongoing standby aid agreement with Romania.

Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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