Romania's President Iohannis is appearing before his country's High Court on charges of a possible conflict of interest. The former mayor of Sibiu has already been acquitted by a lower court.
The facts of the case are clear. Klaus Iohannis, mayor of the Transylvanian town of Sibiu from 2000 to 2014, represented the city's government at the shareholders' meetings of two firms of which the city itself is a co-owner. Romania's National Integrity Agency (ANI) saw this as an illegal conflict of interest. Iohannis sued over the ANI report and scored a victory in the trial in September 2013. The agency's assessment that the Sibiu mayor's activities were incompatible was declared null and void.
ANI then lodged an appeal with the High Court, and that trial began on Wednesday (14.01.2015). Iohannis has repeatedly stated that nothing about the case has changed in the interim, and he is therefore certain that the High Court will also decide in his favor.
However, it is ANI and not Klaus Iohannis that is the focus of public debate about real or spurious incompatibilities and conflicts of interest among Romanian politicians. The National Integrity Agency was established under pressure from the European Commission to check asset declarations by holders of public office, and possible conflicts of interest. In 2007 Romania was the first country in the European Union whose politicians came under scrutiny from an institution founded expressly for that purpose.
Fight against corruption
ANI became an important instrument in the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, introduced by the European Commission for Romania (and Bulgaria) following their accession to the EU in 2007 to tackle deficiencies in judicial reform and in the fight against corruption. Brussels formulated clear objectives in four key areas: reform of the judiciary, integrity, combating high-level corruption, and the prevention of corruption in the public sector.
And although the Commission has acknowledged that Romania has had some success in this area, the country is still being monitored by the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism seven years after joining the EU. Several ministers and a former prime minister have been found guilty of corruption, and investigations are ongoing against numerous members of parliament across the political spectrum. New President Klaus Iohannis has repeatedly emphasized that he respects the independence of the judiciary, that it is one of his highest priorities, and that he will protect it from political influence.
Protected by presidential immunity
However, ANI seems to have overstepped the mark with its accusations against Iohannis. According to a literal interpretation of Romanian law, a mayor may not sit on the board of a company involved in municipal development projects. In other words, a directly elected mayor may not participate in discussions or in the decision-making process around important projects in his city. Iohannis' case concerns his participation in the shareholders' meetings of the municipal enterprises dealing with water and sewage management, and with local markets. The question not just the mayor but also voters and experts are asking themselves is valid: Who, if not the mayor, should be the main person dealing with issues pertaining to infrastructure, water supply, sewage and waste management?
This was the view taken by the court of appeal in September 2013, when Iohannis was acquitted of incompatibility and ANI's assessment was annulled. The agency lodged an appeal, and now the High Court will make the final decision. Under Romanian law, those found guilty of incompatibility are banned from holding public office for three years. However, if Iohannis were unexpectedly found guilty, he is protected by presidential immunity and would not in fact have to step down.