Book 'em: the loophole undermining Romania's anti-corruption drive

Publishing a book of scientific value can shave 30 days off a jail term – but no one is evaluating the results of the many white-collar inmates exploiting law


Dan Voiculescu, media mogul and former prisoner, has reportedly written eight scientific papers. Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

Dan Voiculescu , one of Romania’s richest men and owner of several television stations, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in August 2014 for corruption. Since then, he has reportedly written eight scientific papers – a startling achievement by any standards. Impressive though it may be, there are suspicions his productivity may not be motivated by academic zeal alone.

Under Romanian law, prisoners can shave 30 days off their jail terms for every book of scientific value that they have published – and it is an opportunity being seized by many white-collar prisoners in a country engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on corruption. While in prison for graft offences, politicians and businessmen in particular are churning out papers in order to take advantage of the loophole, with little in the way of checks to confirm the value or even originality of the works produced. “The law has been like this for many years but we haven’t seen such abuses until recently,” said Laura Ștefan , an anti-corruption expert and a former director in the Romanian ministry of justice. “It has come at a time when Romania’s anti-corruption push has started to generate convictions.”

According to the country’s prison administration, 415 scientific works written by prisoners were published between the start of 2013 and December 9, 2015. In 2012, there were just seven. There are strong suggestions that many of the books are being written by ghostwriters, or at least heavily guided by outside research assistants, who then pass the text on to the prisoners who handwrite them – the manuscripts must be handwritten rather than typed – and pay for a small print run of a few hundred copies. At present there is little in the way of guidelines or academic rigour on what is worthy of reduced prison time, with parole boards often left to decide on their own.

In April 2015, Romanian businessman Gheorghe Copos , who was serving four years in prison, was accused of plagiarism in relation to a book he allegedly wrote, titled: Matrimonial Alliances as a Policy of Romanian Kings in the XIV-XVIth Centuries. He has since been released. According to Catalin Parfene, a historian who wrote his MA thesis on the subject in 2005, Copos’s book “has an identical structure, the same historical approach, the same type of argumentation, similar expressions and passages, an identical structure of the ideas in my thesis”. It was also, said Parfene, coordinated by his own thesis advisor, although he only knows this because a single copy of the book was sent to the national library as legally required; all other copies were apparently bought by the author.

In June, the University of Bucharest said it was putting together a new commission of experts in order to analyse the two works, but even if the decision goes against Copos, it is unlikely that he will be returned to prison to complete the 30 days. In total, Copos apparently produced five books in his 400 days behind bars; he also got time off for being over 60 and working in the prison’s carpentry workshop.

Meanwhile, Gigi Becali , the controversial owner of Steaua Bucharest football club, reduced his stay in prison by writing two books, one of which was about his relationship with the football team he owns; while former politician Nicolae Vasilescu has allegedly written nine books since 2014 and jailed businessman Dinel Staicu has had seven titles published in a similar period.

In recent months, some of those involved in Romania’s fight against corruption have pushed to have the loophole closed, or at least amended. “No one is verifying the scientific value of the work, or if they have time to write these books,” said Laura Codru ța K övesi , chief prosecutor at the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). “People are writing eight, nine, 10 books with no scientific value but are still able to reduce their sentences. This is indirectly affecting the fight against corruption.”

DNA proposed amendments to the law in April, but so far it remains unchanged, and savvy criminals are making the most of the opportunity to reduce their time behind bars. “This system is unmanageable for Romania right now. If you can’t manage it, don’t have it,” said Ștefan.

The Guardian

3 January 2016