Media mogul Sorin Ovidiu Vantu and the other two individuals accused over Nicolae Popa’s flight from justice in the FNI case were freed last week while the investigation continues. Accusations are flying back and forth between Vantu, who claims his arrest was part of a political game by Traian Basescu, and the president, who says the state institutions are simply doing their job.
The Bucharest Court of Appeal decided last Thursday to free Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, one of the most influential media moguls in Romania, and owner of the Realitatea press group, from custody.
Along with Vantu, his driver Alexandru Stoian and a businessman from the Republic of Moldova, Octavian Turcan, who are also under investigation, were released.
The three were detained and are being investigated in relation to the flight from the country of Nicolae Popa, former manager of Gelsor. Vantu is charged with helping Popa escape to Indonesia after he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his involvement in the National Investment Fund (FNI) scandal, one of the major scams in post-communist Romania, in which 300,000 people lost a total of EUR 300 million.
The difference between freedom and incarceration was made by the narrowest of margins, with two votes in favor of release from the panel of three judges and one against. The investigation into Vantu, Stoian and Turcan will continue, and the trio will be subject to several conditions. They may not carry a gun without the approval of the court. Vantu is forbidden to contact Turcan, and both must remain in the country. Vantu is also forbidden to get in contact with Popa, who is in police custody in Jakarta, or with Popa’s brother.
After his arrest, Vantu staged a 24-hour hunger strike, during which he also refused medication, but called off the strike and began eating again after discussions with his lawyer.
Vantu admitted that he had enjoyed a good relationship with Nicolae Popa. “To you, Popa is a dangerous criminal, but to me he is a friend,” he told the judges. He added that the other two men who were charged in this case were innocent.
The controversial businessman also admitted that the recordings that had been submitted as evidence against him were authentic. However, he described the case as “a political issue” and said that state institutions were carrying this investigation at the behest of President Traian Basescu. Vantu also claimed that the institutions were doing everything to satisfy the president.
“Everything has been set up by Basescu with the help of the Romanian Information Service (SRI),” he said. “Basescu does everything through the SRI, and I will tell you how. He recruits prosecutors and people from the media, and his modus operandi is very simple: the SRI intercepts calls and sends notes to inform prosecutors, the prosecutors build the files which are given to journalists, who must then vilify the target,” said Vantu, quoted by Mediafax.
Vantu added that he was constantly spied on by the SRI. “140 people from the SRI were monitoring me at one stage, but recently it has only been 40. Even a satellite frequency was rented to record the microphone of my telephone,” said the media owner.
He also complained that the prosecutor leading the investigation had not asked him for relevant documents, which he would have been glad to provide. “It would have been appropriate for the prosecutor investigating me to ask that I provide the documentation that is the object of the investigation. I would have provided this documentation willingly. Obviously, this was not needed because everything had to take place as you saw,” said Vantu.
Vantu also claimed that in 2007, when Basescu was suspended by Parliament, he had asked Vantu for favorable press coverage which he had agreed to give for the sake of the country’s progress. However, afterwards, Vantu said he had started receiving “threats” from the president’s people.
“In 2007 during the referendum, Traian Basescu came to me for support. I told him that I agreed, and we determined together certain criteria based on which I would support him, to safeguard the progress and modernization of Romania,” he said, quoted by Mediafax.
After this, Vantu claims he was visited by representatives of the head of state who wanted to buy into the Realitatea business. “After this, some of his messengers came to ask me for a part of the media trust. Naturally, I refused. They started threatening, I kept on refusing. I was warned that I would be financially harassed. I refused. They said I would be ‘in trouble’, but I still refused… Later, an eight-month audit started at Realitatea TV, and it all culminated with my arrest,” said Vantu in court.
On his return from Brussels on Thursday evening, President Basescu was asked to comment on Vantu’s claims that he was orchestrating the investigation, which he denied. Basescu said that all rich people tried to cast aspersions on the president when asked by a court how they had made their money.
“But what I can tell you is that those who stole money from the FNA (National Cumulation Fund, e.n., a company equally administered by SOV Invest) and from the FNI (National Investment Fund) must answer for it. Those who stole oil money must answer for it and those who stole from the state must also answer for it. So I do not understand why the press is trying to repeat a lie: that it is the president who is responsible for putting thieves in prison,” said Basescu, quoted by Mediafax.
The president also criticized journalists for “disseminating propaganda for those who should answer before state institutions.”
“You should start from the premise that you have a president who has self respect, who will never tell a judge ‘pass this sentence’ or tell a prosecutor ‘accuse that person’,” he told media representatives.
A colorful past
– Vantu’s name came to public attention when a Ponzi scheme called the National Investment Fund (FNI) collapsed, causing approximately 300,000 Romanians to lose their savings. Shortly before the fund collapsed, Vantu reportedly withdrew large sums of money and then sold Gelsor, the company which administered the fund, to Ioana Maria Vlas, who was sentenced to jail. After five years of trials, Vantu was given a three-year suspended sentence.
– In 2004, Vantu officially bought the Realitatea Group, a move which was seen by many analysts as a way to rescue his reputation. However, Vantu’s name is connected to other big titles in the Romanian media. The Gandul newspaper was created by an editorial team led by well-known political analyst and journalist Cristian Tudor Popescu, with the help of poet and talk-show host Mircea Dinescu, who reportedly got the necessary money, EUR 1 million, from the businessman. Dinescu later spoke in support of Vantu, calling him “a great intellectual”, while Popescu hosted a show on Realitatea TV.
– Vantu has been a controversial figure since communist times, when he was both allegedly an embezzler and an informer. While serving a five-year sentence for embezzlement in 1983, he reportedly became an informer for the Securitate, under the codename Nus. He ceased cooperating with the regime in 1988.