Romanian businessmen accused of major fraud and other crimes are exporting similar looking business strategies across the Prut River into Moldova. Moldova, a country of 3.5 million with language and cultural ties to its European neighbor, has struggled through a 20-year transition from part of the old Soviet Union to independent democracy. Feeble state institutions, inadequate legal safeguards, corruption and poverty have created a fertile ground for criminal groups even as the country makes timid first steps towards EU integration. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project looks at a number of businessmen who ran afoul of Romanian police yet have opened shop in their neighbor often with connections to high-level Moldovan officials.
The Export Business
Last March, three Romanian businessmen boarded the daily Tarom Airlines flight from Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, to Bucharest. Three well-dressed first class passengers could have been any successful entrepreneurs doing business between EU integrated Romania and its poorer neighbor. But these passengers were not typical and what they export may not be what Moldova needs. All have been convicted repeatedly for criminal activities, fraud or corruption. They have played a role in some of the biggest scandals in Romania. Now they are working in Moldova.
Paul Petre Țârdea, Gabriel Bivolaru and Liviu Nita spent the hour-long flight drinking wine, talking and cracking jokes. It was clear to reporters from the Rise Project and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) who observed them that they’ve known each other for a long time.
They share similar backgrounds and skills forged during years of imprisonment for fraud and public scandals. They have been in similar businesses.
Țârdea is heavyset with gray hair and matching beard. Since 2010 he has frequently traveled to Chisinau where he has businesses. In Bucharest he was charged with orchestrating a fraud at Banca Comerciala Română Novaci that cost the institution some €50 million. Indicted by prosecutors of the National Anti-corruption Department (DNA), he was recently tentatively sentenced to eight years and six months imprisonment. This is not his first problem with law. In the late 1980s under the former Ceausescu’s regime, Țârdea was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for influence peddling and other crimes. Later he was involved in a series of public scandals including the bankruptcy of two television betting shows, “Euro Tombola” and “Tombola TVR”, that aired on national TV stations in Romania.
Gabriel Bivolaru, a stout, confident man with a carefully trimmed beard and a Louis Vuitton bag, has also frequently visited Moldova by plane and in his Mercedes S 500 limo. A former Romanian parliament member of the PSDR/PSD-Social Democratic Party, Bivolaru has been sentenced to prison seven times over the past 10 years. In March 2004, he, was sentenced to five years for embezzling $70 million from Banca Romana pentru Dezvoltare (the Romanian Bank for Development), a Romanian state-owned bank, now owned by the French company Groupe Société Générale. His wife, Mona de Freitas – still being sought under an international warrant – also was investigated in this case. The courts proved that Bivolaru specialized in illegal economic schemes: fraud, forgery, embezzlement, etc. The criminal sentences were combined, a few others pardoned, so that the former MP was released from prison on probation in February 2007, after less than three years. His transnational business network operates using offshore companies and has been active in oil transactions.
The wiry Liviu Nita, carrying a shoulder bag, looks more like a boxer. He travels to Moldova frequently with Bivolaru. In 1999 he was arrested and later sentenced to prison for issuing counterfeit checks to purchase oil from a Romanian state-owned refinery. The Niță case stirred a national scandal in 2000 when he told prosecutors that money he earned in the deal was meant for the coffers of the Democratic Party (currently the Democratic Liberal Party-PDL). The late MP Corneliu Ruse, was an associate of Niță in the Sun Oil Company that perpetrated the fraud and was also the connection between Niță and the party. The investigation led to other PDL leaders although they were not prosecuted. Niță was released on probation in 2001. In 2004 he was pardoned by then President Ion Iliescu and went back in business. Now, however, he is using offshore companies.
An OCCRP/RISE Project spent several months examining the three and found them enmeshed in a maze of interests involving high-ranking Moldovan officials.
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