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Romania ruling party boss gets 3½ years in prison for graft

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's most powerful politician was sentenced Monday to 3½ years in prison for official misconduct in a graft case. The jail time for Liviu Dragnea, party leader of the ruling Social Democrats, came after a conviction last year for having two party members paid by a public agency for fake jobs.

According to prosecutors, Dragnea intervened from 2008 to 2010, when he was a government official, to keep two women employed by his party on the payroll of the family welfare agency. The women admitted working for the party while they received salaries from the public agency.

Dragnea, already blocked from being Romania's prime minister because of a 2016 conviction for vote-rigging, was expected to be imprisoned shortly 24 hours. Hundreds of Romanians took to the streets of Bucharest, the capital, on Monday to celebrate Dragnea's sentence, some of them posing for pictures with cutouts of Dragnea in prison garb. The ruling party has been widely criticized for failing to fight corruption by officials.

Prime Minister Viorica Dancila refused to comment on the court decision, but acknowledged its impact. "Regardless of what one feels about Dragnea, his conviction is a difficult moment" for the Social Democratic Party, Dancila said. "It's a drama for him and his family. We stand by him."

Victor Ponta, a former prime minister with the Social Democrats and now chairman of Pro Romania Party, was more critical. "I'm sorry that this man, blinded by pride and viciousness, pulled Romania, the government, parliament, an entire party and the honor of millions of people into a hole with him," Ponta said in a Facebook post

Dan Barna, chairman of the opposition Save Romania Union party, welcomed the court ruling, which had been delayed for months after Dragnea appealed the June 2018 conviction. "Today's ruling ends the Dragnea era, one of the darkest over the last 30 years," Barna said in a Facebook post. "Romania is getting healthier, we are coming back to Europe."

Dragnea's party suffered huge losses in European Parliament election on Sunday, falling to second place behind the opposition National Liberal Party. Additionally, a non-binding referendum called by President Klaus Iohannis, a government opponent, seeking to pressure the government into stopping efforts to water down anti-corruption measures won support from 80% of voters on Sunday.

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