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The Romanian Academy loses 452 hectares of land in Constanta county. Part of the land was leased to Grivco, a company controlled by oligarch Voiculescu, for a project that never materialized

Written by  Jul 08, 2014

With thousands of hectares of land confiscated as the communists came to power, in 2001 the Romanian Academy, maybe the wealthiest entity in Romania, after the Orthodox Church, set out to retrieve its once vast patrimony. Among its valuable assets were 452 hectares of land in Constanta county.

Apparently sabotaged from within by the president of a foundation set up to ease the profitable administration of its patrimony, the Academy has yet to become the legal owner of the land, although the plots are clearly listed in an issue of Romania’s Official Journal from 1948.

At first, the Academy received a property deed for its 452 hectares but it was given land in Topalu, the worst area in Constanta county in terms of property value.

Hundreds of hectares from the 452 to which the Romanian Academy was entitled according to the Official Journal were lost following a series of shady transactions the Academy official made with local authorities in Constanta, particularly with the City Hall run by Radu Mazare. The transactions had the Academy renounce 300 hectares it owned in Topalu, according to the property deed, in exchange for property deeds for land in better areas in Constanta, which were supposed to be “reconstituted with urgency”. Since 2009, the Constanta City Hall gave the Academy only approximately 2,000 square meters of land. The Academy received another 14,000 square meters from the Ministry of National Defense, meaning the Academy received a total of 16,000 square meters in exchange for 245 hectares.

Another 117 hectares were leased, at the end of a shady paper trail, to a company owned by Grivco, a group owned by the Voiculescu family, which planned to develop a wind turbine park. The investment, which the company said was to be covered with EU funding, never materialized.

The 2010 statement of interests of Grivco founder Dan Voiculescu contained no mention of the contract with the Romanian Academy, although it does mention other deals between Grivco and the Patrimony Foundation of the Romanian Academy.

Today, the Academy only owns the few thousand square meters of land in Constanta and a few thousand others in Ovidiu, out of a total of 452 hectares to which it was entitled, and the property deed it was granted for land in Topalu is currently the object of a petition for annulment in court.

According to the Official Journal no. 260 of November 8, 1948, several assets that had been donated to the Romanian Academy by old rich families were nationalized by the communist government of Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej. The list of dozens of properties, some of which consist of hundreds of hectares of land, is published in that issue of the Official Journal. Among these are 452 hectares of land in Constanta county.

Following the issuance of Law 752/2001, the Romanian Academy set out to recover its assets. The law states the entire patrimony is to be managed and utilized through the Academy’s Patrimony Foundation, an NGO the Academy set up for this very purpose.

On the basis of the Official Journal no. 260, representatives of this foundation take stapes toward recovering land nationalized by the communists.

On December 23, 2004, during the final days of the Nastase Cabinet, the committee for the establishment of property rights over land under the authority of the Constanta prefect at the time, Gheorghe Martin, validates a document. The document stated several plots of land totaling 452 hectares were taken from the State Domain Agency and transferred into the possession of the Romanian Academy, to compensate for the property it had lost in Constanta, during the nationalization process in 1948.

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Six days later, on December 29, 2004, two days before New Year’s, the Constanta prefect issues a property deed in favor of the Romanian Academy.

Although the communist regime had deprived the Academy of valuable land, such as the Murfatlar vineyards and considerable areas in the heart of the city of Constanta and the town of Mangalia, the county committee gives the Romanian Academy 452 hectares of land in the cheapest part of the county at that time: in Topalu, located in the north-western part of the county, an area where one hectare of land sold for a few hundred lei at the time.

Strangely enough, the representatives of the Patrimony Foundation waited nearly two years before picking up their property deed, according to documents perused by the Media Investigation Center at the Topalu Town Hall.

In 2006, representatives of the foundation picked up the property deed and, unsatisfied with the land the foundation was attributed, they sued local authorities in Constanta. Three civil lawsuits were open and were to be tried by the Constanta Court. In the files, numbered  11477, 11478 and 11479, the foundation, on behalf of the Romanian Academy,  claimed back lands on the sites noted in the Official Journal no. 260/November 8, 1948 or rightful compensation.

Academy land starts vanishing

On March 14, 2007, at the headquarters of the Constanta City Hall, the executive president of the Patrimony Foundation, Academy member Alexandru Bogdan, draws up a memorandum  together with two employees subordinated to mayor Radu Mazare. The document, obtained by the Media Investigation Center, states the Academy renounces its claim on 103 out of its due 452 hectares of land, citing the lack of a property deed for the respective surface.

The 103 hectares in question account for a large chunk of the land now located in the city of Constanta, that once belonged to the Romanian Academy, according to the 1948 Official Journal. Although the data regarding this surface are mentioned in the 1948 Official Journal, the official reason stated for the Academy's renunciation on its claim is that "documents submitted do not constitute evidence of rightful ownership".

Academy member Alexandru Bogdan then makes three transactions with the Constanta City Hall, the Topalu Town Hall and the representatives of the County Committee for the establishment of private property rights on the respective land, one for each lawsuit file, in a bid to halt the litigations. One of these three transactions includes the renunciation of claims over the 103 hectares for which the Academy allegedly lacked a property deed.

In total, through these three transactions, the Academy's foundation renounces approximately 245 hectares of farmland and in-city land it was entitled to according to the 1948 Official Journal and which it had received in Topalu. In exchange for the elimination of this land in Topalu from the property deed, local authorities in Constanta undertake to reconstitute the property deed for this land "with urgency", through restitutions in kind and, where restitution in kind is not possible, through compensatory land or stock in Fondul Proprietatea, an investment fund set up by the Romanian state to compensate Romanians whose nationalized property could not be returned in kind.

The logic is unclear but the parties agreed through these transactions to "partially annul" the property deed issued for the Academy in December 2004 and subtract the 245 hectares that constituted the object of these agreements from the total surface of 452 hectares in Topalu.

The definitive and irrevocable court rulings resulting following the transactions made in 2007 become executory only on January 27, 2009.

Three days later, on January 30, 2009, the Academy Foundation, led by the same Alexandru Bogdan, petitions the Constanta Court to order the county's Land Fund Committee to issue a new property deed for the land in Topalu "for the surface that was not the object of the partial annulment in the aforementioned three civil lawsuit rulings".

In the same document, the Foundation petitions the Constanta Court to ensure the remaining surface the Academy owns in Topalu "obligatorily includes the following plots: A119, A154, A169, A224, A204, A206, A399, A400, A789, A793, A745, A798 and A804.

"It is absolutely necessary that we are in possession of these plots in view of applied scientific research for sustainable development and technological innovation, substantiated by environmental and economic factors," Alexandru Bogdan argued the special interest in those plots of land.

The beneficiary of the land was, however, Grivco

On December 4, 2009, Alexandru Bogdan sends a letter to the Topalu Town Hall informing the local authorities the Romanian Academy renounces claims on 300 of the 452 hectares it received according to the property deed issued December 29, 2004 and enclosing a table listing the exact locations of 117.4 hectares of the remaining 152 hectares. Most of the plots of land explicitly petitioned to the Constanta Court are listed in this table.

"We request that you agree that out of the 452 hectares, according to the property deed no. 1281/29.12.2004 (…), 152 hectares remain in possession of the Romanian Academy for agricultural crops and activities introducing technical progress in view of sustainable rural development, and 300 hectares be immediately transferred into the property of the Topalu Town Hall, to be utilized in accordance with legislation in force," Alexandru Bogdan wrote in the document addressed to the mayor of Topalu, Gheorghe Murat.

The document ends with a mention of a certain Ion Bebi, a "collaborator" of Academy member Alexandru Bogdan, indicated as the person to be contacted for details pertaining to cadastre for the 152 hectares of land remaining in the property of the Academy according to the deed issued in 2004.

According to the Official Journal of Romania no. 5175/September 19, 2008, Part Four, Ion Bebi is the administrator appointed by Grivco SA in the board of EVN Windpower Development & Construction SRL, where the firm controlled by the Voiculescu family owned 50% of the stock at that time, while the other 50% was owned by Austrian group EVN.

 The secretary of the Topalu Town Hall told the Media Investigation Center that, before the town hall received the letter, the Academy official had sent a table listing plots of land and expressly required that their availability be checked.

"We checked together, over the phone, the availability of the plots of land of interest to Mr. Bogdan from Bucharest and based on our discussion he sent us the table enclosed in the letter, which contains the plots in which he was particularly interested. He didn't say exactly what he needed them for, I know it was something to do with wind turbines," said the town hall secretary.

She showed us the first table received for checking purposes, which contains her notes.

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 The document represents and annex to a "Partnership contract regarding the exploitation of certain plots of land located on the administrative jurisdiction of Topalu commune, Constanta county”.

The contract, obtained by the Media Investigation Center, was concluded between the Romanian Academy, duly represented by the Patrimony Foundation, and SC EVN Windpower Development & Construction SRL. The Academy is represented by Alexandru Bogdan, president of the Patrimony Foundation, and the private company is represented by Lazar Mihai, the current president and CEO of Grivco.

The annex to this contract, which explicitly lists the land plots the Academy is leasing to EVN Windpower Development & Construction SRL, contains the exact same plots of land the Academy claimed from the Topalu Town hall in December 2009.

It is a very good deal for the firm half-owned by Grivco: the annual rent it pays for 117.4 hectares of the Academy's land in Topalu is just EUR18,000. The lease contract has a duration of 25 years, the life span of the wind power project as "estimated" by the two parties.

The project was supposed to host 18 to 25 wind turbines and the "annual tax for the utilization of land" was set at EUR1,000 per turbine.

The statements of interests submitted over the years by senator Dan Voiculescu, founder of Grivco, contain no mention of EVN Windpower Development & Construction SRL or any contract between this firm and the Romanian Academy. The contract signed in September 2009 should have been mentioned in the statement of interests of 2010, which does mention several other deals Grivco SA made with state institutions, including some contracts concluded with the Patrimony Foundation of the Romanian Academy, but not the contract concluded by EVN Windpower Development & Construction SRL, which is half-owned by Grivco.

The National Integrity Agency (ANI) law does not state explicitly one's statement of interests must list only contracts with state institutions concluded directly by firms in which one is a shareholder.

The Media Investigation Center contacted ANI president Horia Georgescu for an opinion on this matter but the official requested more time for the institution to formulate an official stance. ANI had not responded by the time we published this investigation but Mr. Georgescu has assured a statement would follow shortly. We shall publish that statement as soon as it is received.

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LATER EDIT: It is ANI's opinion that Grivco founder Dan Voiculescu has breached the law regarding the submission of statements of interests.

The National Integrity Agency has issued an official stance, which the institution registered under no. 10376/08.07.2014.

According to the cited document, Dan Voiculescu should have listed the contract concluded between EVN Windpower Development & Construction and the Romanian Academy in his statement of interests.

"Based on your findings and the systematic interpretation of relevant legal provisions, it is our opinion that a public official who owns a commercial company which in turn owns 50% in a commercial company that concludes contracts with state institutions is legally obliged to mention in the wealth statement the revenues his company made as a result of owning stock in another company, and the statement of interests must contain, in chapter 1, the number of shares owned in other commercial companies and in chapter 5 must mention the contracts the said company concluded with state institutions, within the terms and conditions stipulated by the law. We note that the opinion stated herein represents a point of view and is not a general and obligatory interpretation of the mentioned legal texts," the Integrity Agency said.

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The wind park Grivco and EVN planned to build in Topalu never materialized, probably because the initial intention was for the project to be financed with EU funds. So far, the Topalu Town Hall has not issued any urban planing certificate for such a project and there is no mention of the EVN wins park in Topalu in the databases of temporary authorizations for connections to the national power grid.

Meanwhile, Grivco is no longer a shareholder in EVN Windpower Development & Construction SRL, which is currently almost fully owned by PNE Romania Wind Energy Holding, which is in turn owned by PNE Wind Ausland GMBH, the German firm that owns 80% of the company, while the remaining stake is owned by Wind Energy Investment SRL, controlled by two individual shareholders: Dinca-Carjan Maria Cristina si Dinescu Daniela.

Reactions

In a press conference on Sunday, July 6, we attempted to ask Dan Voiculescu about Grivco's business in Topalu, but the organizers of the conference were very clear laying the ground rules: Dan Voiculescu would only answer questions relating to politics and maybe "strategy" and questions regarding Grivco would be answered by a Mrs. Radulescu, one of his collaborators.

When Dan Voiculescu finished, we asked his collaborator about the partnership between EVN Windpower Development & Construction SRL, the firm in which Grivco had owned 50%, and the Romanian Academy. She replied that although the question was not related to the topic of the press conference, she would reply at the end of the conference. When the conference ended, Dan Voiculescu's bodyguard relayed Mrs. Radulescu's message: there would be no talk , the press conference is over.

The mayor in Topalu, Gheorghe Murat, is upset with the representative of the Romanian Academy.

"This man from the Academy, Mr. Bogdan, caused us all sorts of trouble! We petitioned the court to annul a property deed for the Academy's 452 hectares and to issue a new one for the surface remaining after the closing of all the lawsuits it [the Academy] had in Constanta. We have petitioned for annulment, we're now waiting for a court ruling and meanwhile we can't do anything with that and," Murat.

The Media Investigation Center asked Academy member Alexandru Bogdan, who represented the Romanian Academy throughout this saga, for an interview to give him an opportunity to explain all the land transactions he made in Constanta on behalf of the Academy. In a long discussion, Professor Alexandru Bogdan underlined the land "is nowhere near lost".

 At first, he said the property deed for the land in Topalu had been issued without his knowledge in his capacity of petitioner for the recovery of the Academy's patrimony in Constanta, as relayed in the 1948 Official Journal.

"We didn't pick up the property deed until 2006 and then, obviously dissatisfied that we had been given land with zero economic potential, we sued the local authorities and claimed our rightful assets ," said Alexandru Bogdan.

He also explained the three transactions following which more than half of a total 452 hectares received in Topalu was lost.

"We did not lose that land. We have a promise in writing that the Constanta City Hall will reconstitute with urgency our property deed for land where it was originally located. A promise doesn't mean the land is lost. Obviously, as the promise was made, we requested to subtract those surfaces from the deed for land in Topalu," said Bogdan.

Asked what was received in exchange for the elimination of 245 hectares from the property deed received in 2004, Bogdan said those transactions, now the object of definitive court rulings, "consecrate the Academy's ownership of those lands".

"The Academy may claim rent from anyone who built anything on those plots," Bogdan says in theory.

In fact, however, he concedes that, in exchange for the 245 hectares in Constanta, the Academy received two plots totaling around 2,000 square meters from Mazare's City Hall and another 14,000 square meters from the Ministry of National Defense, left over after the disbanding of a military base. Therefore a grand total of 16,000 square meters in Constanta in exchange for 245 hectares in Topalu.

Professor Bogdan also said he observed in 2009 that the land in Topalu had wind power potential and thus partnered up with Voiculescu's people. He did emphasize that he did not know the company was connected to Grivco.

Asked how he knew which plots had wind power potential, the Academy member was unable to reply. He was unable to explained on what studies he had based his claims when he petitioned the Constanta Court for specific plots of land, especially since the partnership with EVN/Grivco had not been signed at that time.

At first Bogdan said the project was experimental and not commercial but, contradicted by clear statements in the contract he himself had signed, he requested more time to do more research. The Academy official was also unable to state whether the Academy received any money following the partnership contract for the wind turbine park.

Due to technical issues, the second part of the interview is only available in audio format, at a lower quality. We apologize for the inconvenience. Also, no translation of the interview is currently available.

(This story is part of the project "Public Funds in Romania - corrupt tenders, mismanagement and theft ", carried out by the Media Investigation Center in partnership with Freedom House Romania and Expert Forum Romania within a grant of the U.S. Department of State, through the United States Embassy in Bucharest. The Media Investigation Center is solely responsible for the content of this story, which does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U.S. Department of State or the United States Government. The partners and sponsors of this grant are in no way liable for this story.)

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