INVESTIGATION: The Forest Thefts Part I

INVESTIGATION: The Forest Thefts Part I
07 June 2021 | 14:30

Theft of wood from the forests of Moldova, seen from inside the system. Phone calls, (i)legal orders, political requests, and houses worth millions.

A forester who was recently fired for having allowed illegal logging agreed to reveal evidence of how in recent years his bosses asked him to cut down trees and transport surplus timber from the forest as well as about how politics is involved in the activity of foresters. 

For several years, the forester, who toyed with politics and who was accused of involvement in schemes, documented many of the indications received from his superiors, recording thousands of telephone conversations with them, as well as with other colleagues, about the underworld of a system haunted by corruption.

ZdG has analyzed some of these discussions and presents, for the first time, details of the world of forest thefts, viewed from inside the system, a world where foresters are those who follow the instructions of superiors, and in case the thefts are discovered, they are sacrificed while their bosses, almost always, remain unharmed in their positions. It is a world where interests and relations in politics and justice make the law.

Vasile Frunză became a forester following in his father’s footsteps. He grew up in the forest where his father worked. In September 2006, he officially became a forester in canton no. 8 within the Bobeica Forest District, which is part of the Hâncești-Silva Forestry. Since then, with a break of a few months, he has always been a forester in the same canton.

Vasile Frunză, Forester.

Dismissed because there were discovered 93 illegally cut trees

A control carried out in the summer of 2019 in his canton, with the participation of a member of the Moldovan Parliament, revealed that 93 oak trees had been illegally cut down, the damage amounting to 3,500 euros. Vasile Frunză, the foreter in charge, was fired. However, he returned to work after contesting the act in court, and later, the Hâncești Court ruled in his favor, forcing the state to reinstate him, to compensate the non-pecuniary damage amounting to one thousand euros and to pay him the salary of 1,000 euros for five months of forced absence from work (his average salary being 200 euros per month).

In court, the forester defended himself and ascribed the theft of wood on the fact that he has to supervise 402.5 hectares of forest, which is a large area.

“The losses caused by illegal logging must not be attributed to the foresters, but to the persons who cut down the trees. The forester did not receive those trees by an act of receipt-delivery; therefore the damage caused cannot be imputed to him. The forester has only the obligation to protect the forest fund, as a whole,” Vasile Frunză defended himself.

In March 2021, however, the Chișinău Court of Appeal overturned the first instance decision and upheld the act by which Vasile Frunză was dismissed. At the end of March, Vasile Frunză handed over the keys to the canton and left the forest. The litigation between him and the Moldsilva Agency, in which he asks to be reinstated, has reached the Supreme Court of Justice.

“The wood is written on an invoice and with that invoice, you carry wood all day long.”

Vasile Frunză saw a lot during his 15 years of activity in the forest. He agreed to discuss with ZdG about the schemes that, year after year, leave Moldova’s forests without trees. The forester told, in great detail, how he and his colleagues had to collect money and votes in elections, how they had to follow the instructions of their superiors not to lose their jobs. 

Foresters do not steal the forest as such. Foresters directly participate, but they are forced by their bosses and managers,” Vasile Frunză begins his disclosures, telling us about the simplest and most frequently scheme through which the forests are stolen: surplus created artificially during legal cuts.

“During the forest inventory, the tree is measured. The neighboring forester comes to the site, the foreman records the diameters of each tree. The forester marks the sick or dry tree, and depending on the works, measures it and says what he sees there. And the foreman knows what measurements to put down on paper. Everything is done by the foreman. Afterward, he goes with the respective sheet of records to the head of the forest ground. The head makes changes there and takes out 10 percent, the surplus. Besides, when the foreman records measurements there, he always gets out something of it. And this is where the surplus comes from – only marked trees. It is not an illicit cutting of trees. And so it’s hard to trace. Now, if you go there, you can’t find them,” says the forester.

In order not to keep track of the surplus of the wood, the authorities force us to sell it, to collect the money and to transfer it to them,” says Frunză, with reference to Anatolie Untu, the head of the Bobeica Forest District.

The surplus wood is taken out from the forest, usually during the day, based on the same invoice.

“The surplus can be taken out during the day; at night, because of the vehicle lights, it appears suspicious as everyone thinks it’s being stolen. An invoice is made and with that invoice, the wood is transported all day. If the police or the competent bodies check the invoice, they have the right to add the date on the invoice, as well as the time and place where it was stored, so that later they cannot transport wood with the same invoice,” explains the forester.

“Our boss is a little more subtle, he protects himself better.”

In recent years, Vasile Frunză has recorded thousands of telephone conversations about forest thefts. Many of them contain indications received from his superiors, the foreman Nicolae Comîndaru or from Anatolie Untu, the head of Bobeica Forest District. We listened to a conversation that was held prior to receiving a stack of wood. Untu asks Frunză if he is “ready for the reception tomorrow”, and after the forester indirectly tells him that he failed to get the surplus, he gets upset.

Nicolae Comîndaru, Forester, Bobeica Forest District.

“There is a recording of a conversation with the foreman, as he directly tells us to take out the surplus. Our boss is a little more subtle, he knows how to better protect himself. He summoned us to more meetings and we talked face to face. He didn’t talk much on the phone,” says the forester.

In another discussion, Anatolie Untu is upset that wood buyers bother him with phone calls and he asks Vasile Frunză to solve the problems because “I didn’t make you a puppet, to be a guardian at the canton,” although this is the job of a forester, to guard the forest.

Frunză recorded several phone conversations with foreman Nicolae Comîndaru. In some of them, consulted by ZdG, Comîndaru asks Frunză if he managed to remove the wood, and the forester tells him that he cannot find transport.

 “I basically did everything he said. We both had something to gain.”

Vasile Frunză claims that he decided to speak because he has nothing to lose.

I have enough evidence. I have recorded my whole activity in a notebook and I wrote everything there. I completed two thick notebooks of evidence in three years and I wanted to go with these and with video evidence to the National Anti-Corruption Center. They told me there that if the evidence is related to Untu, he has friends everywhere, and now that the communists are in power, you can’t solve anything. And Untu told me the same thing, wherever you go, no one will do anything to me, for I have friends everywhere,” says Vasile Frunză. He insists, however, that “I have registered all the indications and all the illegalities.”

Vasile Frunză admits that, previously, he was on good terms with his boss and that he complied with all the instructions given to him. “Mr. Untu and I had a close collaboration. When the man came to us at the Forest District, I basically did everything he said. We both something to gain,” the forester reveals.

In recent years, however, relations between them have cooled, especially after he allegedly repeatedly refused to provide the requested money. They say to collect money from time to time, says Vasile Frunză.

“Indications come really often. Especially in the years 2017-2018-2019, sums amounted to one thousand euros. On November 12, 2018, we were forced to make repairs at the headquarters of the Forest District. I had to do the electrical work and the plastering of the interior walls. I bought the materials with my money too. The workers have not been paid to this day. Each forester had his own repair share: someone repaired the floor, some other – the ceiling… each had something to do. We are 10 foresters,” says Frunză.

 “If you don’t steal you’re kicked out. Another forester will come who can steal.”

Vasile Frunză openly admits that he participated in forest thefts. He says, however, that he and his fellow foresters are forced to commit illegalities.

I tell you, the foresters are forced to steal. If you don’t steal you’re kicked out. Another forester will come who can steal. I can give an example. Let’s take the forester who was hired after I was dismissed. Nothing personal, but he has no education in the field. A simple boy who was a taxi driver became a forester. They said he was great. I can provide a video of how they discussed at the canton the hiring of the forester, how someone puts in a word for him, money is discussed. It matters only to obey…, to do exactly as the boss says, to fulfill the boss’s requirements,” says Vasile Frunză.

And if you oppose, you will not stay long in the forest, because “a forester can easily be fired: he went to another sector, there was an incident, he was not in the territory when some authority came… or many more pretexts can be found,” explains the forester.

“The enterprise gets all the money from the sale of the wood, of what is kept in check. There is a bill and an invoice is issued. We take the entire surplus to the boss and he already distributes further, deciding how much should go to higher authorities, how much should remain at the forest district. We also get somewhere up to 10 percent of the amount. Don’t get mislead, we are not getting rich as the works we carry out in the forest involve expenses. We don’t have many employees. We take them from home, we pay for the transportation and the food, and these are expenses. I mean, I would be happy to be given a little more money so that I can manage the expenses. I practically don’t earn anything from the wood sale. They get all the money while we do all the work in the wood,” says Vasile Frunză, who claims that foresters must pay people who work in the forest from their own income, and they have to cut down the forest in order to get money for it.

 “They ask for money on Easter eve, on New Year’s Day eve, and whenever there is an election campaign.

“During the election campaign, he forced me to give away two and a half cubic meters of stacked wood. I have got the conversation when he tells me a neighboring forester will come with the transport and take the wood to make some swings. To this day, however, he has not paid for the timber. I paid them from my salary before the inventory, for I did not want any problems, now that I am in litigation and I want to be clean,” continues Vasile Frunză.

“They ask for money on Easter eve, on New Year’s Day eve, and whenever there is an election campaign. The boss summons us and says: “get me five roosters, two rabbits or give me money and I’ll go and buy them.” If, by God’s will, a tree fell because the wind blew it down, we go and collect it and sell it as firewood… we are forced to steal it,” says Frunză.

The telephone conversations between Vasile Frunză and other foresters confirm that the foresters were asked, on different occasions, to collect certain amounts of money. Sometimes the foresters gave the required money, without knowing exactly the destination. Later, in order to recover the money given to the chiefs, the foresters had to illegally cut down trees in the forest and sell the wood illegally.

“They gave each forester sheet and said: write an application to join the party,”

Vasile Frunză, like other colleagues of his, combined over the years the position of forester with the activity of politician. In 2019, he ran for mayor of Văsieni village on the lists of the Party of National Unity. Previously, the forester was part of the Democratic Party. He participated in the political rallies of the party in Chișinău when the fugitive oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc was party leader. However, he says that he was forced to be a politician by circumstances. “At a meeting, they gave each forester a sheet of paper and said: write an application to join the party. I didn’t want to, honestly, but they took out another sheet of paper and put it in front of me: “Write a resignation request then. Choose.” 

He openly admits that, in election campaigns, foresters are forced to collect not only money but votes too: “Previously, we were forced to bring a certain number of votes, to bring people. We have a lot of forest workers who work illegally. They can gather the kindling, we offer little rewards and the people respect us. So we have to motivate somehow those people to vote for who the bosses tell us. We have to vote for those who are at governance. Most recently, it was the socialists.”

The forester claims that they started to be involved in election campaigns during the communist government. “We, who worked for the state, were summoned by Mr. Popșoi, former director of the Moldsilva Agency. He gathered us and told us that each forester should bring five people, family members, mother, and father. In 2010-2011, when other parties came to power, the number was raised to 200 people, 100 people from each forester. They have taken over the scheme and it’s working, it’s getting harder and harder for us, we are more oppressed. It is becoming hilarious, we have to convince practically the same people to vote one party today and another one the next day, and people already swear at us, but we have no choice,” he admits.

How the forester justifies the two-level house in which he lives

The house where Vasile Frunză lives.

ZdG decided to talk to the forester Vasile Frunză while checking his activity after several people in the field denounced his involvement in illegal deforestation schemes, for which he was dismissed. The forester lives in a two-level house in Văsieni village, Ialoveni district, at the foot of the forest he managed. His house was put into operation in September 2017. On social networks, the forester’s wife often posted pictures from the courtyard.

However, Frunză claims that the house was not built on the salary he received as a forester.

“My in-laws donated the plot as a wedding gift. The whole construction was made on the money that my mother sent while she had worked in Israel for 10 years. We’ve got all the checks, the bills. In 2015, I accounted for the construction of this house to the General Prosecutor’s Office,” says Vasile Frunză.

Vasile Frunză’s car.

Vasile Frunză came to our meeting driving a BMW 7. We later found the car’s price on an ad site is 8,600 euros. On the same ad site, Vasile Frunză also sold a Saiga 410-3 weapon, an old 1989 car, and a pram.

“If the thefts stopped, I think all the foresters would resign.”

Before talking to Vasile Frunză, we went to the canton where he was a forester. Vitalie Solonari accompanied us, a local who was one of the commission members who identified the theft, following which Frunză was fired. In this canton, many trees were stolen after being uprooted or cut from the root, and the remaining pits were covered with earth and leaves, to erase the traces of the thefts.

As we walked together, Vitalie found several places where the trees were cut down illegally. He believes that “the scheme continues to work.”

“If the cut is legal, a stamp is applied to the tree; it is the number of the tree, the species, the thickness. Apply the stamp, cut it from the ground at 10-15 centimeters, so that the stamp is visible, a sign that the tree is numbered, that it is put to evidence. The trees cut from the ground show it’s a theft,” says Vitalie. “If the thefts stopped, I think all the foresters would resign. Basically, with 130 or 200 euros, the salary they are paid, and with the expenses they have, it is not possible to exist,” he considers.

“The entire courtyard of Mr. Macar’s house is made of logs that I collected at the orders of Mr. Untu Anatolie.”

Anatolie Untu, the head of Bobeica Forest District, is 46 years old. He has been working in forestry since 2012. The appointment came shortly after Ion Haralampov became head of the Forest Enterprise.  His colleagues from Bobeica Forest District claim Haralampov to be Untu’s godfather. Subsequently, between 2017 and 2019, Haralampov was director of the Moldsilva Agency.

The family home of the president of the Hâncești Court, Mihail Macar.

In 2016, following an unexpected control, in which Valeriu Munteanu, the then Minister of Environment, also participated, Untu was fired because several irregularities were detected in the forest district he managed. Assisted by the lawyer Alexandru Macar, son of Mihail Macar, the president of the Hâncești Court, Untu was reinstated the same year by the decision of the Hâncești Court. Then he was transferred to Bobeica Forest District, where he still works today.

Vasile Frunză claims that, shortly after Untu became his boss, one of the first illegal indications he received was to take wood to the family house of Mihail Macar, the president of Hâncești Court. “Alexandru Macar is the son of the president of Hâncești Court. Mr. Untu asked me to prepare some logs from an oak sawmill, to make a natural oak log sidewalk in the yard. The entire courtyard of Mr. Macar’s house is made of logs that I collected at Mr. Untu Anatolie’s order. That was after he was reinstated, it lasted about half a year,” says Vasile Frunză.

The house, the car, and the plot owned by Anatolir Untu – ready for the construction of a wood processing station

Anatolie Untu, the head of the Bobeico Forest District, drives a Volvo XC60, purchased directly from the salon. He lives in a house located near Chișinău. The house, with an area of ​​170 square meters, was put into operation in 2012, the Untu family acquiring the land in 2006. Although the house was put into operation before he became head of the forest district, Vasile Frunză states that the foresters would have worked for Anatolie Untu many times, including at his house in Chișinău.

Anatolie Untu, the head of the Bobeico Forest District.

In 2018, Anatolie Untu bought over one hectare of land outside Bobeica village in Hâncești district, and his colleagues from Bobeica Forest District claim that he initiated the construction of a wood processing station there. A concrete foundation is poured on that land, only currently the works are suspended.

“We have such discussions with any forester, foreman, or accountant every day.”

Anatolie Untu and I met in his office at Bobeica Forest District. When I entered his office, Untu was talking to Nicolae Comîndaru, the forest foreman who appears in the telephone conversations with Vasile Frunză. At first, the head of the Forest District avoided discussing, stating that he will not make any declarations before the investigation, initiated after Vasile Frunză filed the complaints, is completed. After we let him listen to some of the recorded conversations with the forester Vasile Frunză, Anatolie Untu claimed that “I never told him on the phone to take out the surplus” and said they were talking about sales. “You should understand our system as it is. We rely on both forest protection and sales. These discussions are with any forester, foreman, or accountant every day.”

Untu claims that “an entire village has these records. An entire Moldova has these recordings,” and there is nothing compromising in them. “What is the point of these recordings? I just know who this person is. I knew from the very beginning that every word is recorded,” says the head of Bobeica Forest District. Although he claims that Vasile Frunză was a forester who created many problems, and several complaints were registered in his name, he did not dismiss him as there were no serious violations. In 2019, when control was carried out with the involvement of a Member of Parliament, he was fired because of several illegal cuts.”

However, Untu alluded that Vasile Frunză maintained his job as a forester for several years because he would have had political support from the Democratic Party during the period when the party was led by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc.

“My house is my property and everything that I owe is my personal property.”

The head of Bobeica Forest District denied having collected money from foresters or foremen. In general, Anatolie Untu gave laconic and often evasive answers. He considered Frunză’s accusations unfounded especially as they came after the forester was fired.

Anatolie Untu avoided talking about the money for the construction of the house or for the car purchase. “My house is my own property and everything I owe is mine. If you investigate, pick up all the documents and see when the house was purchased. The house was put into operation in 2012, and I came to the forest in 2012. I did not come to Bobeica Forest District, right? Well, how could Mr. Frunză work for me, build my house, do whatever for me if the house had already been put into operation and I still hadn’t come to the forest?” notes Anatolie Untu.

Initially, he denied that he owned a plot of land outside the Bobeica commune, a few kilometers from the headquarters of the Forest District he leads. Later, however, he admitted, but avoided saying what he intended to build on that plot. At the same time, he denied that Ion Haralampov, the former director of Hâncești-Silva and of the Moldsilva Agency, and currently the head of the Calarasi Forest Enterprise, would be his godfather.

The head of Bobeica Forest District also denied that he had given instructions to Vasile Frunză to take oak logs to the house of Mihail Macar, the president of the Hâncești Court, whose son was Untu’s lawyer in the process in which he was reinstated in 2016.

The house surrounded by the wood of the president of Hâncești Court

In order to verify Vasile Frunză’s statements about the wood taken to the Macar family’s house, we asked him to show us, on the map, the exact address of the estate. The house is located in Hâncești and until 2017 it was registered in the name of the mother-in-law of the president of Hâncești Court. Subsequently, it was donated to the judge and his wife, and in April 2021, following a donation contract, the judge’s son, the lawyer Alexandru Macar became the owner. A contract was immediately signed by which the judge and his wife, notary Veronica Macar, received the right to live in this house. The household is surrounded by a wooden fence. The gate is also made of wood. 

The entire courtyard of the house is covered with a wooden frame, and inside you can see a summer house, also made of wood. “Several foresters worked, not just me,” says Vasile Frunză. 

Hâncești Court examines all disputes that concern the employees of Hâncești-Silva Forestry Enterprise, including the reinstatement of those dismissed.

On Friday, May 21, around 12.30, Judge Mihail Macar entered the building, getting out of a Toyota Land Cruiser, bought by him in 2018. He refused to talk to ZdG. He told us that the house “is made by my mother-in-law” and denied that several foresters would have worked on its construction or arrangement. He even claimed he did not know Anatolie Untu.

Shortly afterward, the lawyer Alexandru Macar, the current owner of the house, arrived. He said that he did not know Anatolie Untu, although he was his lawyer. The lawyer stated that he has invoices for the wood used to arrange his family’s house. However, although we left him an e-mail address, Alexandru Macar did not send us the invoices that would confirm the purchase of wood used to arrange the territory of his house. He insisted, however, that “no forester worked here for me.”

 “Thank you for everything.”

The foreman Nicolae Comîndaru, the person mentioned in the conversations with the forester Vasile Frunză, denied the accusations regarding the involvement in the forest theft schemes. He explained Frunză’s statements by the fact that “he is angry at everything and everybody. He wants to work again. He’s mad at the system, and he is writing now nonsense, all sorts of things. I didn’t tell him to take out any surplus. I did not give any illegal orders,” the forester defended himself.

I don’t want to get into this mess. He can win in the court, it is the third lawsuit already and in case he comes back, I don’t know how we’re going to work with him if he does that…. There should be a bit of humaneness, but… I did not steal with him, I was never his accomplice,” says Nicolae Comîndaru. Shortly after the discussion with ZdG, Comîndaru sent Vasile Frunză a message in which he said briefly: “Thank you for everything.”

P.S.

You can read the full version of the text in Romanian on www.zdg.md. There you will find the telephone conversation referred to in audio format, as well as the video of the investigation.

AUTHOR MAIL

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