Government of Romania vs. former President Nicolai Ceausescu
Political Corruption, Asset Search
A Journey Inside the the Padded Walls
Investigative findings for this case are in the public forum as the result of a television documentary. This case reinforced my belief in the importance of the human element in fraud investigations, irrespective of the culture. Your first arrival to meet the client is always special, and here on April 5, 1990, Rod Stamler and I were greeted at Bucharest’s Otopeni airport by the military, whisked around armed security and taken directly to the Ministry of Justice in Bucharest, via a government vehicle, a black Dacia, otherwise aka an old Renault R7.
We were here to assist the new government through the Minister of Justice to find the assets of Ceausescu following the summary trial and swift execution of Nicolai Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, in December 1989. The case we were taking on carried with it a civic duty to help the people begin to enjoy their newfound freedom and belief that the new government’s anti-corruption mandate would make a difference in their lives.
The door closed on the elevator, the grill pushed across, and for a moment, this tight box created a slight paranoia that they were taking us away. Little did I realize that in a few minutes we would be presented to ten senior public officials, including the Minister of Justice, Chief Prosecutor and private counsel to start the asset search investigation.
Smoke filled and with newspapers hiding their faces, we entered a large conference room, the walls heavily padded, no doubt to keep all the Ceausescu secrets from escaping. We were introduced to our new friend and guardian, a Lt. Col. from the army, whose job was to ensure that we would receive the necessary co-operation. That night we checked into ‘Hotel Bucheresti’ that is now a Marriott located near the ‘Palatul Parlamentului’.
Eventually we started our work and through a particular strategic move, one senior member of the Securitate, Ceaucescu’s secret police, provided critical documents regarding the ownership of a targeted company and with that information, we then took the investigation out of Bucharest into foreign countries namely, Austria, Switzerland, Greece and Cyprus.
Our progress moved more quickly that we could have hoped: Public documents were found in Eisenstaedt, Austria, a senior person we nicknamed “Double D” rolled over in Romania, nominees were exposed in the UK and then in Greece. Assets were identified in a company for recovery. But that’s where it ended. No legal proceedings were ever commenced. In a television documentary, a spokesman for the Romanian government later said it lacked the resources to pursue recovery of the hidden assets.
I found through the internet a reference (“Radu Tudor: Traian Basescu begins to lose the belt”) to our report as recent as June 28, 2011 where segments from it were included. It also included reference to my signature on the report dated June 29, 1990 along with our counsel, Ed Belobaba. At the time I was a partner in the Toronto office of Peat Marwick Thorne. I have included an additional reference dated June 2, 2006 entitled “FILES Censorship: In Search of Wealth Devil”.
At the start of our work, the streets of Bucharest, despite the ever-present bullet ridden government square buildings, reflected a new peace, as the people were happy, filled with great hope and expectations from the West. With Ceausescu, the dictator now dead, the people believed a terrible burden had forever been lifted.
But, by the middle of June 1990, students, disappointed and angry at the lack of change were rioting, buses were burning along with the central police station while helicopters hovered above. Rod and I were in the midst of it all, taking pictures. Then the miners came into Bucharest standing inside dump trucks and holding baseball styled bats, ready to now put down the student unrest, it was time to leave. The lady ticket agent was crying as she gave us our airline tickets, “what’s our future here, my daughter and I?” She asked us. We had no answer. Within two months, the public happiness over the end of a brutal dictatorship had been reduced to grief and disappointment. We were safely in the black Dacia, miners won’t touch a black government vehicle, we’d been told, headed for the airport. The seat in Swissair jet felt extra special.
Business is an international language, and so is the investigative process; after all it is about people and paper. Although cultures differ, it was again confirmed that human characteristics, when it comes to money and power, are similar.
Much like the ‘Trinidad’ investigation, these cases go beyond the issues and much more into an historical and societal study. This makes the practice of forensic accounting such a great trip from a career perspective. To be successful, the practice involves much more of an initial human focus before the accounting itself becomes relevant.
A personal note in terms of time and place and the future: On April 4, 1990, Rod and I met officials from the World Bank in Washington, DC on our first trip to Romania to discuss their loan program during Ceausescu’s reign. Eight years later, almost to the day, I as a partner of Price Waterhouse had the privilege of being retained by The World Bank to assist with their investigations into allegations related to the improper use of their loan proceeds.