The stars are in alignment for Mayor Nicolae Matei. Fresh out of jail, he is at the peak of his popularity as a leader. Next week, he turns 46.
Born under the sign of Leo, he casts himself as a lion among men – proud, ambitious and theatrical.
This year has – quite literally – been a trial for the mayor, what with the messy business of the land deal and the policeman, the bribery charge and the prison term.
“Death would have been easier,” says Matei, of his time behind bars. “It’s hard to accept the humiliation.”
Today though, the sun is shining, the town is celebrating, and the lion is out of his cage.
Matei is back among the people who love him best, pausing for photographs and pressing the flesh. He is back in Navodari, the town he has beautified with golden sculptures of the lion, his favourite animal.
It is a hot July day on Romania’s Black Sea coast. At a football field that doubles up as a temporary fairground, Navodari is celebrating its annual carnival, a week before its mayor celebrates his birthday. The two events might just as well coincide.
On his birthday last year, Matei was congratulated by townsfolk and serenaded by the entire staff of the local TV station. At the carnival this year, he is the star attraction.
His name adorns the banner across the stage. The artists who perform there, including his favourite pop star, thank him personally for hosting them. When Matei refers to himself as the “emperor” of Navodari, as claimed in court documents, he may not be joking.
“He is like our father,” said an old man who was filmed by local TV while protesting against the mayor’s arrest last year. “He is the soul of this town.”
Matei makes for a youthful patriarch, his bushy hair greying slightly at the temples. He dutifully mixes with admirers at the carnival, his arched eyebrows lending him a permanently wary expression.
Matei is one of a new breed of Romanian leaders that have extracted political capital from their corruption investigations.
Across the country, mayors have been condemned in courtrooms, only to be resurrected at the ballot box.
Their resilience exposes a paradox in the European Union’s campaign to improve governance in its newest member states.
Romania’s anti-corruption prosecutors, backed by the EU, have been spectacularly successful– most famously claiming the scalp of a former prime minister, Adrian Nastase.
But their smaller targets have often bounced back. In town councils and city halls, corruption trials have been the making of political careers, rather than their ruin.
These leaders have exploited their control of local institutions – and a popular distrust of the central ones – to turn prosecutions to their advantage.
This story by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) reveals how a campaign against bent government, ordered by the EU, has achieved its judicial aims –without cleaning up politics. It has delivered convictions without damaging reputations.
At the carnival in Navodari, the lights have come on and the vendors are grilling meat. Matei walks through the smoke from the barbecues. Camera flashes bounce off his white suit.
He pauses to test his strength against a fairground punch-bag. When he topples the bag, the crowd congratulates him.
Matei was arrested in November 2012, months after being elected to his second term as mayor. At the time, around a thousand supporters protested against his detention, carrying placards saying, “We want our mayor back,” and “Give us our man, give us our life."
Matei was accused of trying to bribe a police officer in the nearby city of Constanta. The prosecution – using evidence from wiretaps – alleged that the mayor had offered the policeman two plots of land, worth €13,000. In exchange, he expected to be excluded from the scope of a series of criminal investigations.
Matei denied the charge of bribery. In his defence, his lawyers cited his popularity as mayor.
The judges were not persuaded, and sentenced him to pre-trial detention. He spent five months in jail. Surrounded by supporters upon his release, The Emperor of Navodari wept.
“There were more people waiting for me there than when I won the election,” he recalls.
Matei has resumed his official duties while his trial continues. A verdict is expected within the next year. If convicted, he could be sentenced to anything between six months and five years in prison. His deputy would step in during any absence, taking orders from his boss as he did during Matei’s recent spell behind bars.
Whether convicted or cleared, Matei’s long-term prospects are unlikely to suffer. He remains wildly popular in Navodari and has no credible rivals. At his re-election in 2012, he secured 70 percent of the vote.
His control over the town is almost total. The local council includes representatives from four parties, who voted on 114 decisions between January and early September 2013 – a period that includes Matei’s imprisonment. All the measures were passed unanimously.
Matei is a small man, given to hasty gestures. In the mayoral office, he lights a candle, crosses himself several times and settles down on the couch.
In speech, he is less guarded than many politicians, boasting of his authority. “Don’t imagine that I indulge people,” he says. “Yesterday I relieved five department heads of their positions.”
He vents his disdain for Romanian justice and for the apparent hypocrisy of EU policy. “Do you think the Westerners didn’t make mistakes? How do you think they evolved?” he asks.
Matei started off as an entrepreneur, importing goods from Turkey after the fall of communism in 1989. His business empire grew out of a warehouse where he shifted everything from jeans to industrial parts. “I never cheated anyone and no one cheated Matei,” he laughs. “And I made money.”
Enough money, he says, to share with the community. “It’s really stupid to make out that all businessmen are thieves,” he argues, referring to Romania’s anti-corruption campaigns. He expands on his version of the trickle-down theory, describing how his wealth has enriched the local economy.
“Do I travel with two cars? Do I eat with two mouths? Do I wear two suits? No, just one,” he says. “Some of my employees are better dressed than me. They go on vacation more than I do.”
Navodari was a small fishing village when the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, embarked on the industrialisation of the Black Sea coast. A town of nearly 40,000 inhabitants, its economy now revolves around a nearby oil refinery.
The traces of Matei’s tenure are most visible in Navodari’s public spaces. A main road is adorned with sculptures of mermaids in gold paint. Mock-classical columns have been erected within view of grey communist tower blocks.
Municipal cleaners mop between fake trees of metal and plastic. Their T-shirts bear Matei’s name. Colourfully lit fountains and squares play host to a variety of animal sculptures– spouting dolphins, preening peacocks and sturdy elephants.
Surveying this menagerie of metal and stone are the ubiquitous carved lions, symbols of Matei’s authority. Even the town council’s guest house has its collection of miniature lions, nestling between icons and telephone directories.
Laughing, the mayor admits he has a soft spot for the king of the jungle. Not content with sculptures, he has acquired two live lions from a private zoo. The animals are housed in a large cage on the grounds of his estate. Their roars can be heard all over the neighbourhood.
Matei’s popularity rests on more than civic works and a colourful personality. He is one of the town’s wealthiest businessmen, and the sponsor of the local football team. His charity comes with a touch of showmanship. Over the last two years, he has used the mayoral budget to subsidise some 6,000 household energy bills, awarding the money through a monthly prize draw.
At Christmas and Easter, thousands of needy families receive a package containing a chicken, some eggs and sunflower oil – again paid for from the mayoral budget.
Last year, Matei more than doubled the town’s payments for religious services. He is popular with churchgoers and he has been praised publicly by the Orthodox clergy. He is also favourably regarded by the local TV and radio station, both owned by a company registered in his name.
Among the town’s citizens, there is sympathy for Matei’s difficulties with the law. Allegations of mayoral wrongdoing are nothing new in Navodari. Matei’s predecessor and his challenger in the 2012 election, Tudorel Calapod, was convicted of corruption and has since retired from politics.
Constantin Balaceanu, a retired factor worker, says Navodari has never had it so good. “Look at this asphalt,” he says, pointing to a newly tarmacked road. “No one else would do what this mayor has done. That’s why we feel sorry for him.”
At a new park on the outskirts of town, Laura and Iulia, two young mothers who only gave their first names, agreed that they would forgive their mayor even if the courts found him guilty.
“All politicians steal,” says Laura, matter-of-factly. Iulia backs her up. “In any job, you don’t have enough if you don’t steal. That’s how it goes these days.”
Many Romanians feel an instinctive sympathy for a local mayor who has attracted the attention of prosecutors. Support for the individual official in corruption cases reflects a distrust of institutions that dates back to communist times.
The Ceausescu dictatorship was brutal and essentially dysfunctional. To circumvent the state, Romanians cultivated personal relationships with bureaucrats. For the citizen seeking medical care or employment, a nod and a wink from a friendly functionary meant more than any official guarantee.
Vintila Mihailescu, an anthropology professor in Bucharest, says Romanians still form their sympathies on an ad hoc basis, siding with local mayors and opposing the state.
“If I do not trust the institutions in general, I also cannot trust them to decide what is correct and what is corrupt,” he says, articulating how many think. “So I’ll place my trust in those whom I consider worthy.”
Protests for the accused
Politicians across Romania have used corruption investigations to buttress or launch their careers.
Dan Diaconescu, the host of a sensationalist TV show, was arrested in 2010 on charges of trying to blackmail a local official. He denied the accusations. Upon his release from detention, he swiftly announced the formation of a new political party.
While the case against him has yet to be resolved, Diaconescu’s party has become the third-largest power in the Romanian parliament, securing 14 percent of the vote at the last election. It campaigned on a populist platform, promising a payout of €20,000 to each citizen from the re-nationalisation of industries.
“The party wouldn’t have existed without my arrest,” Diaconescu says. “The arrest wasn’t merely significant – it represented everything.”
He has now set his sights on next year’s presidential election. “I hope the injustice that I suffered will strengthen my position,” he says, referring to the blackmail charges.
In the coastal resort and port of Constanta, Mayor Radu Mazare has been under investigation for the sale of beachside land that was allegedly undervalued, costing the Romanian state €114 million.
Proclaiming his innocence before TV cameras, Mazare appears clad in military apparel and a red beret – the uniform for what he calls his “war” against the prosecutors. In the summer of 2012, the flamboyant mayor – who has also been photographed in the garb of a Nazi officer and a sultan – won his fourth term in office, with 62 percent of the vote.
Outside of the courtroom, indicted politicians present themselves as men-of-the-people, victimised in a witch-hunt. Their supporters rally around this image.
The protests triggered by Matei’s arrest in Navodari mirrored similar demonstrations in the cities of Craiova and Baia Mare in 2010, in favour of mayors who have since been convicted of corruption.
Even imprisonment is no impediment to re-election. The mayor of the town of Jilava, Adrian Mladin, and the mayor of Magurele, Dumitru Ruse, were re-elected while in custody on corruption charges. Both men took the oath of office under police escort before being returned to their cells.
The townsfolk of Ramnicu Valcea named Mayor Mircia Gutau as an honorary citizen after he was found guilty of corruption.
The parliament elected last year was the most corrupt in Romania’s history. Twenty of its 588 members were under investigation for misdeeds in office, and two had already been convicted.
"Business as usual"
While the roll call of shady officials reflects poorly on the political scene, it represents a triumph for prosecutors.
The national anti-corruption agency, known by its Romanian acronym, the DNA, was established in 2005. At the time, Bucharest was trying to convince Brussels that it was serious about tackling chronic corruption – a key proviso for entering the EU.
Loosely overseen by the Supreme Court, the DNA was awarded extraordinary powers – including a dedicated wire-tapping and police unit that allowed it to sidestep the interior ministry.
The agency soon proved its worth by investigating former prime minister Nastase for the abuse of public funds. It made enemies in the political elite and won praise from Brussels.
In 2012, the DNA indicted some 25 mayors, eight deputy mayors and four members of parliament. Its work led to the conviction of 743 people last year – double the number from the previous year. Roughly 90 percent of the agency’s cases that were resolved in 2012 resulted in guilty verdicts.
Those convicted included two members of parliament, a cabinet minister, nine mayors and three deputy mayors. Former prime minister Nastase was also convicted last year. When the police came to arrest him, he shot himself in the neck in a botched suicide attempt. He survived and was eventually jailed.
The agency’s headquarters are on a narrow Bucharest street, choked with traffic. Reporters and cameramen loiter at the entrance, drinking coffee and smoking. They are waiting for the mayors and MPs who periodically emerge from the building, some smiling, some sweating, some handcuffed.
From his first-floor office, deputy chief prosecutor Nistor Calin can see the grey parliament building, home to many of his agency’s targets. He likens the DNA’s pursuit of politicians to big-game hunting.
He chuckles at the complaint, voiced by some Romanians, that his agency is tarnishing the country’s name by exposing its corruption.
“It’s as if your mother-in-law has driven your expensive car off a cliff,” he jokes. “Should you be glad that she’s died – or should you cry after the car?”
The agency’s critics are, in his view, crying after the car.
The DNA’s prosecutors are proud of their conviction rate. The comebacks staged by convicted politicians are of little concern to them.
“It’s down to the education and conduct of Romanian society, which tolerates corruption,” says Calin, when asked about the many mayors whose careers have been relaunched after prosecutions.
Daniel Morar, a constitutional court judge who earned a reputation as a crusading chief at the DNA, says that while the protests in support of crooked leaders may offend a citizen’s sense of morality, they are irrelevant to the prosecutor.
“What everybody should know is that justice is not delivered by the masses, no matter how many protests there are,” he says. “Justice is delivered by specialists.”
Given Romania’s past, the real surprise may be the survival of the DNA, rather than the vitality of its targets.
Judicial experts say the agency owes its existence to the unique conditions in the last decade, when Romania’s leaders were going to extraordinary lengths to meet the EU’s criteria for entry.
Monica Macovei, a former justice minister who oversaw the creation of the DNA, says genuine reforms often require politicians to take decisions that go against their own interests. “This can be only be done on the eve of joining Nato or the EU,” she said.
After entering the EU in 2007, Romania has had fewer incentives to fight corruption. Politicians have tried to influence or intimidate the DNA, and partisan media outlets have vilified the agency’s staff. A January 2013 report by the European Commission said anti-corruption prosecutors had been subjected to “media campaigns amounting to harassment”.
Macovei, who is now a member of the European parliament, says the situation could be worse. Romanian politicians have tried to undermine public trust in the DNA as a last resort. They still cannot directly obstruct or dismantle the institution without upsetting the EU, she says.
Brussels continues to scrutinise the reforms it has ordered in Romania, producing an annual progress report that gives it some leverage over the government.
“We were lucky to have created anti-corruption laws before joining the EU. I don’t think it would be possible today,” says Laura Stefan, a former director at the ministry of justice who now advises the European Commission.
“The politicians thought we could go back to ‘business as usual’ after EU integration,” she says.“Fortunately, we didn’t go all the way back.”
Vlad Odobescu is a Bucharest-based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence , an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung  and ERSTE Foundation , in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network .