Romania has long been considered one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union, but in recent years it has been making a concerted effort to bolster its fight against graft. Since 2013, Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), with the support of the ruling political parties, has been convicting roughly 1,000 people on corruption-related charges each year. However, once these anticorruption efforts began ensnaring high-level politicians—including Liviu Dragnea, the head of the biggest party in the Romanian Parliament—the government began to criticize the DNA’s work as biased, overzealous, and unfair. This conflict has been escalating, most dramatically in late 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets to protest an overnight decree that pardoned those serving sentences of five years or less for corruption-related crimes, and also decriminalized government officials’ corruption offenses involving less than $47,000 (raised to $240,000 in a later draft bill). The protests led to violent clashes with the police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds.
Adding to the turmoil, Rudolph Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City and current personal attorney of U.S. President Trump, recently wrote a letter to Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, condemning the overreach of the DNA and supporting the government’s efforts to curtail the DNA’s enforcement of anticorruption laws. Giuliani was paid to write the letter by the Freeh Group, a private American firm whose overseas clients include a Romanian businessman convicted for fraud last year, and another Romanian businessman currently under investigation by the DNA for bribery. Giuliani’s letter raises two distinct corruption-related problems.
- First, while it’s common in the United States for former public officials to become private sector lobbyists after leaving the government, there is something unsettling about Giuliani inserting himself into the situation in Romania. Giuliani, after all, regularly appears in the media as President Trump’s public representative, which naturally raises the question whether in writing this letter on behalf of a private client, Giuliani is exploiting his proximity to the U.S. President to exert influence on Romania’s government—in a manner we might consider corrupt, whether or not it’s illegal. Indeed, despite Giuliani’s protestations that he is “an independent lawyer and consultant” and that the letter has “nothing to do with the U.S. government,” his letter darkly hints that U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI) in Romania will suffer if Romania fails to take the steps Giuliani recommends, which include amnesty for those convicted through the DNA’s “many abuses.” The United States is one of Romania’s largest sources of FDI, and the letter could easily be read as offering a kind of corrupt quid pro quo: you give my clients (and others) amnesty, and I’ll use my pull with the U.S. President to ensure the continued inflow of U.S. capital. And even if one doesn’t read such a direct quid pro quo into the letter, it’s certainly the case that many in Romania have interpreted Giuliani’s words as expressing the U.S. government’s position on the country’s anticorruption efforts, even though it in fact contradicts the official position taken by the State Department.
- Second, even if Giuliani had written the letter in good faith, following his advice is likely to set back Romania’s fight against corruption rather than encourage the “due process, transparency, and the rule of law” that Giuliani purports to advocate. Giuliani’s letter alleges various abuses by the DNA, including eliciting forced confessions and intimidating judges, but he offers no evidence in support of these allegations. He also accuses the DNA of using secret protocols to quietly collaborate with the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) to conduct corruption investigations, but he neglects to mention that Romania’s ruling political parties had initially approved the use of the protocols, and it was only after 27 corruption convictions of Romanian politicians in recent years that the same parties withdrew their support. What Giuliani is really doing is what the DNA’s domestic political opponents have been doing: alleging abusive prosecutorial tactics as a way of undermining anticorruption prosecutors’ calls for greater independence. A prime example is Laura Codruta Kovesi, the head of the DNA, who had received praise from the European Commission for her anticorruption work, yet was fired for “exceeding her authority” amid corruption investigations of multiple government officials. Likewise, Giuliani’s suggestion to include an amnesty for those prosecuted since the implementation of the secret protocols, if heeded, would undermine prosecutorial independence, politicize the prosecutorial process, and cause even more public dissatisfaction with the current anticorruption regime. And Giuliani’s recommendation that the Romanian government examine open DNA files on judges—hinting, without evidence, that these files are fodder for judicial intimidation by the DNA—will undercut the integrity of Romania’s anticorruption efforts altogether.
While reasonable people may differ in their opinions on Romania’s battle with corruption, there is something suspicious about Giuliani’s letter. Given that he enjoys a private relationship with the U.S. President, stakes out a position at odds with the official U.S. position on Romania’s anticorruption regime, and was paid to do so by parties who are under scrutiny by Romania’s anticorruption authorities, it seems that Giuliani is corruptly using his position in Washington to undermine a foreign government’s anticorruption efforts.