Romanian tax chiefs under investigation in EU fund fraud case

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian anti-corruption prosecutors said on Wednesday they were investigating the country's tax authority chief and his deputy in a case over misappropriation of European Union funds meant to support underprivileged Roma communities.

Prosecutors also asked parliament to approve a criminal investigation against lawmakers Nicolae Paun and Madalin Voicu in the same case. Under Romanian law, parliament must approve inquiries into sitting lawmakers.

Investigators said the two parliamentarians along with tax authority chief Gelu Diaconu, his deputy Mihai Gogancea-Vatasoiu and eight other people allegedly defrauded two projects aimed at giving vocational classes to the underprivileged, mostly from the Roma minority.

Through forged documents, influence peddling, taking bribes, abuse of power, money laundering and other alleged crimes, they caused damage worth a total 27.25 million lei ($6.84 million) from EU funding and the state budget.

Human rights groups have often accused Romania - home to up to 2.5 million Roma, or roughly a sixth of the population - of not doing enough to improve their living standards or job prospects. Bucharest and Brussels have earmarked funds for better integrating the Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority.

Paun and Gogancea-Vatasoiu have declined comment. Diaconu denied wrongdoing, according to state news agency Agerpres. Voicu said he had yet to see details of the case.

Late on Wednesday, Finance Minister Anca Dragu demanded the resignation of the two tax chiefs.

"The tax authority is one of the most important institutions in Romania and its managers must be above suspicion," Dragu said in a statement.

The investigation is the latest in a crackdown on high-level corruption in the EU state where graft has deterred foreign investment and tax evasion and bribery are a drain on public finances.

Anti-corruption prosecutors have also been paying special attention to cases that involve EU development funds. The European Commission has suspended payments several times due to irregularities.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie)

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