“They beat them very often, they were tied to radiators or kept a whole day and night in WC, left without food. I decided not to leave it like that, because there are children abandoned by their parents”
About the courage of integrity whistleblowers and how the state (doesn’t) protect them
They disclosed illegal practices they observed in the institutions where they are employed or whose beneficiaries they are, only to later suffer retaliatory actions. Few are like them, although a special law guarantees them protection by the state. The law proved insufficiently convincing to encourage more such examples. We are talking about whistleblowers – people who have shown courage and exposed wrongdoing, that they felt they could not ignore. From 2018 until now, only 18 people had this status.
Marcel Lemnaru is a 26-year-old disabled young man. He is an orphan. He moves with the help of an electric wheelchair, which looks like a small scooter, which he drives with skill. We met in the center of Orhei, near the monument of Vasile Lupu, where he told us the story of his life and how he came to be an integrity whistleblower.
“I was abandoned at birth and was left at the maternity hospital in Cahul, then from the maternity hospital in Cahul I was transferred to the maternity hospital in Chișinău and the Social Assistance Directorate transferred me to the Placement Center in Orhei”, says Marcel, who thinks that his parents abandoned him because he was born with disabilities.
The young man spent his whole life in residential institutions and did not know parental care. “It’s very difficult. Because there you stay among four walls”, sighs Marcel. At the age of five he arrived at the Placement Center for disabled children in Orhei, where he stayed for 21 years. Marcel claims that here he was a witness and even a victim of abuse from the administration and some employees of the institution. In 2018, he moved to a sheltered home under the same Placement Center. In September 2022, Marcel decided to speak publicly on a television station about the mistreatment he and his boarding schoolmates were subjected to.
“They beat them often, they tied them to radiators, or kept a whole day and night in WC”
“They beat them often, they tied them to radiators, or kept a whole day and night in WC, they left them without food if they did something bad or didn’t behave. The aid that came – the donations, sweets, clothes, or personal hygiene items, did not reach the beneficiaries or the employees who took care of them. They went to the warehouse and were given only when the officials came or someone like that. And I simply told in an interview how they hit my head against the radiator. That was a few years ago, not now. And I told my story. I told how they fed us very poorly: sausages – very rare, fish – very rare, meat – very rare”, says Marcel.
What Marcel did is called, under the Whistleblower Act, “public disclosure of illegal practices.” And also in the law, what followed is defined – the revenge on whistleblowers.
Fined 1200 lei for disclosure
On the same day that the interview was published, Marcel was fined by the Orhei police, following the complaint of the then deputy director of the Placement Center, Zinaida Tcacenco. She accused Marcel of having ” knowingly spread false information that defamed my honor and dignity.” Although he understood that an injustice was done to him, Marcel paid the fine quickly, so that he could pay it in half, that is 1200 lei.
“They were not right to fine me. They, in a way, threatened me that if I don’t pay this fine, I will leave the house and be transferred to another institution. I was very scared and even cried. For me it was a great emotional stress”, the young man recalls the situations he went through.
But Marcel says he hasn’t lost his courage, because he felt it was important to speak up for his colleagues at the Placement Center. “I said I will continue for these children. I never gave up, even though I was stressed, I kept going. I never stepped back. Because I feel sorry for these children. I’ve been there since I was five years old. I saw what was happening. I said that I can speak about these things, that I have the courage to tell the stories of those children and my life story. I will be a strong fighter. And I have never lied and will never lie about these cases”, Marcel confesses.
The court canceled the fine
After these disclosures, the People’s Advocate Office filed a public complaint and offered Marcel protection and the status of an integrity whistleblower. Supported by the lawyer Iulian Rusanovschi and based on the recommendations of the People’s Advocate, Marcel Lemnaru challenged in court the fine, and in April 2023, the Orhei Court ruled in his favor and canceled the fine. The court took into account the fact that Marcel had the status of an integrity whistleblower, as well as the conclusions of the People’s Advocate Office, according to which, “the analysis of the content and nature of the disclosure shows that Marcel Lemnaru had and has a reasonable belief that the information disclosed is truthful ” and “Marcel Lemnaru’s disclosure was made in good faith.“
Marcel is of the opinion that things have changed at the Placement Center these days and says that the beneficiaries tell him that they get better treatment and attitude.
ZdG: If you hadn’t come out to say this publicly, do you think things would have changed?
M. Lemnaru: No. If I hadn’t gone public, I think the authorities wouldn’t have started this case and wouldn’t have investigated. I mean, they would cover up everything and would say that everything is fine, everything is perfect, everything is ok and things would stay that way. But I decided not to leave it like that, because there are children abandoned by their parents.
“He’s a disabled boy and sometimes he exaggerates things”
“We are short of a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a childcare worker, we are short of 10 childcare workers,” says Natalia Balan, the current director of the Placement Center, who has been leading it since the beginning of 2023. But, although Marcel has status as an integrity whistleblower, she believes that the young man would have exaggerated in his disclosures and attributes this to his disability.
“Regarding Marcel’s stories, I want to mention that he is a disabled boy and sometimes he exaggerates things. Many of the institution’s employees were shocked by what Marcel said because they treated him nicely. He absolutely benefited from all the medical interventions that were possible at that time”, Natalia Balan tells us.
Speaking about the allegations, according to which the boys placed in the center would have been beaten, the director could not give a clear answer. “I mean, I didn’t say that things didn’t happen, because I can’t sign for what happened here then, but there are many employees who have been active in the past and are active now and I see them quite well prepared, well trained, but, possibly, somewhere, something had happened. The majority of past employees no longer work here. (…) Currently, the entire collective works very hard to obtain a positive image of the institution. Because every person from Orhei knows that here we have disabled boys and it is said that they are beaten and they are deprived of food. These rumors spread fast, but things are not quite like that”, says the director of the Placement Center.
“I see a lot of courage when a disabled person takes this position and makes such disclosures”
Ada Șimon, head of the Directorate for the Management and Investigation of Requests within the People’s Advocate Office, an institution that ensures the protection of whistleblowers, believes that the statements of the director of the Orhei placement center are based on stereotypes.
“We witness some stereotypes in our society if the director had such an opinion about the beneficiary of the Placement Center. But, as far as I know, there is a criminal investigation initiated now in which Marcel Lemnaru has a witness status. The authorities will answer these questions and these doubts will disappear as a result of the investigation of this criminal case, where those bad treatments are invoked, but also acts of appropriation of some goods from this boarding school”, says the representative of the People’s Advocate Office.
Ada Șimon believes that Marcel Lemnaru showed courage when he came out publicly to talk about the conditions in the boarding school. “I see a lot of courage when a disabled person takes this position and makes such disclosures. He also said that he did it not for himself, but for his colleagues, for the boys who live in this placement center”, notes Ada Șimon.
Only 18 integrity whistleblowers
The People’s Advocate institution together with the National Anticorruption Center is part of the integrity whistleblower mechanism. The Whistleblower Act came into force in 2018, with the aim of encouraging the disclosure of illegal practices. To date, only 18 people have obtained whistleblower status. Fourteen are addressed directly to the National Anticorruption Center, and four – to the heads of the institutions where they work. Nine obtained protection from the People’s Advocate Office, because they were subjected to retaliatory actions.
Military subject to retaliation after revealing illegal practices
An employee of the Ministry of Defense also experienced retaliation after reporting some abuses by his commander to the Minister of Defense. He made an internal disclosure, as the law states. The man wanted us to protect his identity. “I know the system and that’s why I wouldn’t want to“, he explains why he wants to remain anonymous.
“I guide myself by law in my professional activity. But in 2020, a new person came to lead the military unit where I was serving. He said to us that we should do as he says. He made it clear that documents and the law do not matter that much“, claims the military man.
After refusing to carry out the leader’s orders which contravened the regulations,
he found himself released from the position of battalion commander he held. “I was ignored, everything I recommended or said was ignored. Until one morning when he read my release order. I was released from my position, with transfer to the disposal of the minister, that is, not dismissed from the army, but based on the Law on the status of the military, which provides that the military can be released from the position and can be transferred to the disposal of the minister, for three months, until a decision is made about him. If he does not accept the proposed decision, the serviceman can be released from the army. And that’s what it was all about“, the man told us.
The soldier took the decision to court, asking to be returned to his position. This fact resulted in retaliatory actions from the unit’s management, he says. “And they played a prank on me. They forged a situation that shocked me. They wanted to stage that I am a traitor to the country and that I collaborate with the unconstitutional structures on the left of the Dniester. In this way, they would have a more serious reason to release me from office.“
Then, several such “pranks” followed, so the military reported them directly to the Minister of Defense. An internal investigation followed which concluded that these were ” integrity tests” and he was dismissed as a result, for “tarnishing the image of the unit commander“.
By court decision, the soldier was reinstated in his position as battalion commander, the court concluded that the Ministry of Defense did not act in good faith and within legal limits when it fired him. Thus, in January 2021, the military man returned to his position.
”This displeased them even more. They started to watch me carefully at work, to see who I talk with, what we talk about, and where I go. If I talked to someone, that person was called to the unit commander and asked what we discussed. I was forbidden to enter the premises of the unit. I was not allowed to fully work in my position.“
That’s when he decided to go to the People’s Advocate, but also to the Military Prosecutor’s Office, the National Anticorruption Center, and the Ministry of Finance, where he reported all the violations he believed to have been committed by the commander of his unit, who was persecuting him. The People’s Advocate Office made several recommendations to the Ministry of Defense to stop the retaliatory actions, but they were not taken into account and the disciplinary sanctions against the military continued. The soldier went to court, where he won several disputes with the Ministry of Defense, against the disciplinary sanctions that were applied to him. Partially, the court also took into account the findings of the People’s Advocate regarding acts of retaliation against him.
But the military’s fight continues on other sanctions that were applied to him also out of revenge, as he believes.
“The most basic guarantee, confidentiality, cannot always be protected”
A weak spot in the legislation regarding integrity whistleblowers is the fact that the opinions of the People’s Advocate are only of a recommendation nature and are not always taken into account by employers or by judges when disputes come before the court, states Ada Șimon, head of the Directorate handling and investigating requests within the People’s Advocate Office. Also, the law does not ensure full protection of the identity of whistleblowers who do not want to reveal it.
“I will give an example from Norway, where the whistleblower who decides to make a disclosure of illegal practices, in order not to be subject to retaliation and to preserve the confidentiality of his identity, can make this disclosure through a lawyer. But in our country, the legislation stipulates that the disclosure of illegal practices is registered at the National Anticorruption Center, in the case of external disclosures, in the case of internal disclosures, it is registered in the register owned by the employer and it is very complicated to preserve the confidentiality of the employee who wants to disclose illegal practices. And the most basic guarantee, confidentiality, can’t always be protected”, states Ada Șimon.
“Many look at this subject with shame, they perceive integrity whistleblowers as “snitches“
The law provides for three ways in which disclosures can be made by whistleblowers. The first is internally, directly at the employer, the second, externally – at the National Anticorruption Center and the third – is public disclosure, on social networks, in the press, or on the Internet. The whistleblower chooses the way he considers most appropriate for him to make the disclosure.
“In the case one trusts the institution – he does it internally, if not – he does it at the National Anticorruption Center, if he does not trust it either – he makes it public“, says Ion Pruteanu, head of the anti-corruption education department within the National Anticorruption Center.
“Trust is the key factor. If the manager is an honest person who is an example, a model for subordinates, then they will speak internally. If the manager himself is involved in the schemes and is the head of the pyramid, there may be a register, and there may be a responsible person, but there will not be any disclosures. The same situation is related to external disclosures to the National Anticorruption Center. As long as there is trust, people talk. If there isn’t this trust, they won’t speak“, the National Anticorruption Center representative is convinced.
In addition to trust, there is also prejudice in society towards integrity whistleblowers, believes Ion Pruteanu. “Many people look at this topic with shame, they perceive integrity whistleblowers as “snitches“.
Who and under what conditions can be an integrity whistleblower
A public whistleblower can become the employee of a private or state institution, the person who provides services under a contract, and former employees, no later than 12 months after they left their position. People can contact the national anti-corruption line by phone 0 800 55555 or go directly to the central office of the National Anticorruption Center, or to the territorial offices. There they fill out a form with data about the illegal practice they will disclose and are given a document that immediately confirms their whistleblower status. As a safeguard, their information must be kept confidential.
After receiving the data, the National Anticorruption Center has 30 days to verify the veracity of the information. If the data is not confirmed or the person does not meet the conditions, the public whistleblower status is revoked. The National Anticorruption Center can start an investigation in case of public disclosures.
On June 9, 2023, the Parliament voted in the second reading a new law on whistleblowers, which expands the circle of people who can obtain this status and allows other illegalities to be reported, not only those of general interest. The law will enter into force three months after it is published in the Official Monitor.