INVESTIGATION: The Forest Thefts Part II. The Fight of a Forestry Dynasty with the System and Relations in Justice
Several former and current foresters filed a complaint with the law enforcement agencies, revealing the way in which wood was stolen from the forests located on the territory of Hâncești district. The denunciation was signed and sent to state institutions aftera family of foresters publicly revealed the illegalities committed by the head of the Forest District last December.
Following those public accusations, a control was carried out which showed that, in the last year, over 450 cubic meters of wood were stolen in only two cantons, registering a damage of almost 700 000 lei.
Five and a half months after those revelations, their protagonists have different stories. The accused head of the Forest District is close to returning to the system. His lawyer is the son of the president of the court that examines the dispute, as well as the godfather of the daughter of the person he represents. The accuser however cannot return to the system, despite the repeated promises of the head of Moldsilva, which he made during private discussions.
Gheorghe Buhnă’s dream – to be a forester
Gheorghe Buhnă is 23 years old and he has a dream, to follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, grandfather and father Gheorghe. All three were foresters and in the last almost 80 years they took care not to allow wood thefts in the forest near the villages of Cornești and Boghiceni. Gheorghiță, as his relatives call him, lived practically all his life in the forest, learning from his father all the secrets of a forester’s job. Last October he completed his studies in the field and his dream came true. Gheorghe Buhnă was employed, for a probationary period of three months, as a forester in Canton no. 14 from Bujor Forest District of Hâncești-Silva Forestry Enterprise, a canton which his father managed over the last 40 years.
However, after less than three months of work, Valeriu Merzâncu, then head of the Bujor Forest District, informed Gheorghe that his employment contract will not be extended because, following a control, they allegedly detected a few illegally cut trees in the canton he managed. It was then that Gheorghe, together with his father, told their story in a video published by civic activist Vasile Costiuc.
“The boss wants us to be silent and submissive, to steal wood and to give him money.”
They accused Valeriu Merzâncu of destroying the forest and talked about the illegalities committed within the Bujor Forest District, previously managed by him. “The boss wants us to be silent and submissive, to steal the forest and to give him money,” said Gheorghe Buhnă, and his son and namesake confirmed his words. “I was fired because I allegedly cut down the forest. He can’t prove it … I also went to the director, to Apostolachi Gheorghe, and to Merzâncu, I asked him: let’s verify. Indeed, I agree to take the punishment if the boy is guilty; I am an old forester and I do not like to cut down trees in vain. We wanted to appoint a commission to see on the spot, if the boy is guilty, we kick him out, but let us check in all sectors and see who is guilty. They did not agree. They just fired him and that’s it. And the forest was all divided among these foresters who steal it,” the two claim.
“To be a good and caring forester in the Bujor Forest District, where Merzâncu Valeriu is the head, is a shame, according to him. If I go to the meeting, I have to sit in a corner and they all criticize me because I don’t cut down trees or give money. Everyone says to me: How long will you keep the forest, cut it down. Cut it and bring money,” accuses Gheorghe Buhnă.
The denunciation filed at the law enforcement: How to steal wood from the forest.
The revelations made by the Buhnă family gave courage to some other former and current employees of the Hâncești-Silva Forestry Enterprise to talk about the thefts in the forests of Moldova. In January, this year, Gheorghe Buhnă and his son, together with five other former and current foresters, filed a complaint with the General Prosecutor’s Office, the National Anticorruption Center and the Parliament of Moldova in which they described how Valeriu Merzâncu, the head of the Bujor Forest District, devised a “fraudulent scheme” by which the wood is stolen from the areas where the trees were cut down.
The former foresters state that in the plots where the planned cuts take place based on the evidence documents, a certain amount of wood that was cut is indicated; de facto, it exceeds by at least 40-50 percent the indicated amount, and in some cases – even 100 percent. “Thus, as soon as the cuttings are completed, Valeriu Merzâncu or other intermediaries, at his indication, steal the surplus wood that was not reflected in the documents of strict evidence, without accounting it and without paying money for it and transport it to the wood processing units in the villages of Bujor and Leușeni, which he or his family members own,” the denunciation states.
“People loyal to Mr. Merzâncu were hired in our place.”
In their complaint the former foresters reveal another scheme used for forest theft: in the documents, the wood classified as “logs” is indicated as being of a lower quality, the rest being passed to the “firewood” category. It’s a ‘get-prosperous-fast’ scheme, because the price for a cubic meter of wood classified as “logs” is 960 lei, and the price of a cubic meter of firewood is 312 lei. “Thus, only from one cubic meter of wood purchased by Valeriu Merzâncu through intermediaries, the state budget is damaged by 648 lei. He buys thousands of cubic meters through this scheme yearly,” the former foresters denounce, claiming that, although they tried to expose these illegalities several times, they were not successful.
“Some of us were abusively dismissed by Valeriu Merzâncu, and others submitted a resignation request, because we did not want to participate in the illegal actions committed by him. Therefore, people loyal to Mr. Merzâncu were hired in our place, so that he can further implement his scheme in all forest plots. Moreover, his son is also employed as a foreman, and until 2019 his brother worked as a forester too,” wrote the former Moldsilva employees, who demanded appointing an independent commission to verify all the cuts in the Prut plain, between the villages of Pogănești and Nemțeni, in the period 2018-2020.
In only two cantons, over 450 cubic meters of wood were stolen, the estimated damage amounts to 680,000 lei
Following the revelations of the Buhnă family and the denunciation addressed to the law enforcement bodies, controls were carried out in the forest sectors managed by four foresters. In two of the sectors thefts were revealed worth 680,000 lei. A document signed by engineer Anatoli Iamboglo denotes that in canton no. 8, managed by the forester Ion Hanganu, 284 cubic meters of firewood were illegally cut, and in canton no. 10, where Vasile Rotaru was a forester, 178 cubic meters of wood of the same kind were illegally cut. In total, more than 450 cubic meters of wood were stolen. For comparison, this amount of wood means, in fact, all the trees on an area of about two hectares.
Following the controls at Bujor Forest District, Valeriu Merzâncu was dismissed, as well as the foresters Ion Hanganu and Vasile Rotaru. The two foresters were forced by law, to compensate the state for the damage caused by illegal logging in the cantons they managed. In 2017 Vasile Rotaru had already been fired, but he got back to work after contesting the dismissal order in court. Alexandru Macar, the son of the president of Hâncești Court, was the lawyer who represented the forester’s interests during the trial.
During the same period, the canton managed by Gheorghe Buhnă until the end of December 2020 was verified as well. However, there were found only 10 cubic meters of wood which were allegedly cut illegally.
Head of Moldsilva: “You have my word and I never break my promise.”
The Buhnă family spoke publicly about illegal deforestation, and the head of the Bujor Forest District and two foresters were fired. This may create the appearance that they are successful and brave. It’s just that the reality is different. Although the same control showed that in the canton supervised by Gheorghe Buhnă and previously by his father were discovered only a few trees that were allegedly cut down illegally, Gheorghe Buhnă was not reinstated, although Dumitru Cojocaru, the head of Moldsilva, promised to do it.
In a discussion between Gheorghe Buhnă and Dumitru Cojocaru in January 2021, the head of Moldsilva promised the young forester that all those involved in the theft of wood will be punished, and he will be reinstated.
Gheorghe Buhnă: I wanted to ask you, will I be able to continue the family dynasty of foresters?
Dumitru Cojocaru: Absolutely. What’s the problem? You have my word.
Gh. B.: Simply, now, in three hours, we found 270 tree stubs. Can you imagine? If we work a week there, there might be about a thousand tree stubs.
D. C.: Not as many as a thousand, however, they are going to pay them all.
Gh. B.: Paying is not enough; they have to get their punishment. They can easily pay, they have money. It is more important that they are brought to court.
D.C.: They will pay and they will be dismissed. We’ll send the evidence to the Prosecutor’s Office. I’ll call the district prosecutor tomorrow, we’ll settle everything. I’ve tighten the screws on many persons this year but I got no signal from here, probably because it is a bit farther. You shouldn’t fear anything. I told you, we’ll solve everything together.
“If you want to be reinstated, you should apologize in public.”
During the discussions between the head of Moldsilva and Gheorghe Buhnă, the former was very generous at making promises. “We will solve everything. You shouldn’t worry. I’ll take care of everything. They will cry bitterly, they will all end up behind the bars,” Cojocaru told Buhnă in another discussion.
“After I publicly made the disclosure, Mr. Cojocaru Dumitru, the head of Moldsilva, often invited me to his office. He promised me that I would be reinstated, he asked me to keep calm, and not to sue the order by which I was dismissed for allegedly five illegally cut stumps. I did as he said, only a lot of time passed, several months… I went to him about a week ago (the discussion was filmed on March 15, 2021, ed. note), because he called me. I thought he was going to take me back to work. But he said, “If you want us to reinstate you, you will have to make public statements.” So, I have to apologize in public. But I didn’t ruin his image, I only showed him what is done in the forest,” says Gheorghe Buhnă, puzzled that things didn’t change much after he got the courage to speak out in public about wood thefts.
“He continues to profit from the old schemes.”
“The foreman who was in charge of all these cuts, alongside with the dismissed foresters and Valeriu Merzâncu, is still working. He carries on with the old schemes. I was only called by the police, apparently, to testify how these trees were cut down or if I saw anything. In any case, the men who were caught with this amount of trees, they did not get any punishemnt. They are fine, they don’t even want to pay the compensations, because they don’t admit their guilt,” Gheorghe Buhnă describes the state of facts five and a half months after he exposed the wood thefts.
After the complaint regarding the illegalities was filed with the law enforcement body, Gheorghe Buhnă was summoned to hearings, where he was asked about the illegal cuts down. However, the criminal case is still pending.
“All my life I lived in the forest, with the thought of serving the forest, as my parents, my grandfather, my great-grandfather did. But with the bandits who are now in power it is not possible… Good people can’t work. If I did what most foresters do, cut down, sell and give money to the competent bodies, then yes, I would continue to work and everything would be fine,” Gheorghe Buhnă is sure.
The son of the court president is the godfather of the daughter of the person he represents as lawyer in the court led by his father
Unlike Gheorghe Buhnă, whose returning to forestry seems a difficult process, Valeriu Merzâncu, dismissed because he did not fulfill his duties properly, may return to office faster and more easily. He challenged in court the order by which he was dismissed, demanding that he be reinstated.
The litigation is examined at the Hâncești Court, and the decision will be pronounced in mid-June. Valeriu Merzâncu did not participate in any court hearing, his request for reinstatement being examined in absentia. He is represented in the trial by the lawyer Alexandru Macar, the son of Mihail Macar, the president of the Hâncești Court.
Alexandru Macar is also the godfather of Valeriu Merzâncu’s daughter, Doina Merzâncu-Buță, who works as a judiciary assistant at the Chișinău Court and wants to become a judge. The lawyer demanded that Valeriu Merzâncu be reinstated, on the grounds that he was fired by Moldsilva and not by the Hâncești-Silva Enterprise, which hired him.
After the hearing on May 21, which took place a week before the pronouncement of the decision, Alexandru Macar and the representative of Moldsilva, Ana Fratea, had an exchange of contradictory remarks about the course of the court hearing.
Alexandru Macar: There was an attempt to violate the provisions of Article 119.
Ana Fratea: How was it violated?
Alexandru Macar: By the vicious presentation of documents, which were not granted to me or to the applicant.
Ana Fratea: The applicant had them from the moment he gave explanations ….
Alexandru Macar: The law is one for all. If you called the press, it means that the law must be one for everyone.
Ana Fratea: Nobody called the press. The press has been notified since the complaint was filed by Mr. Buhnă.
Alexandru Macar: I’m glad. To see all the illegalities committed by the Moldsilva Agency.
Ana Fratea: And you think the Moldsilva Agency must be silent about the damage of 680 000 lei.
Alexandru Macar: It must not be silent, it must punish those responsible.
Ana Fratea: True.
“These are my business interests, I can’t tell you”
Ana Fratea, the representative of the Moldsilva Agency, did not know, after the court hearing on May 21, 2021, about the connections between Valeriu Merzâncu and the family of his lawyer, Alexandru Macar. However, she already created the impression that the judge was not impartial.
ZdG: Do you know that Mr. Macar Alexandru is the son of the president of Hâncești Court, and Mr. Macar is the godfather of Mr. Merzâncu’s daughter?
Ana Fratea: No, I didn’t know about that …. It is a very serious reason and already due to some actions of the judge the impartiality between the participants in the process is reduced.
The lawyer Alexandru Macar denied that he knew Valeriu Merzâncu just an hour and a half before the court hearing in which he represented his interests. He also denies that he is the godfather of Merzâncu’s daughter, despite the fact that ZdG has evidence to prove it.
ZdG: Are you, by affinity, a relative of Mr. Merzâncu?
Alexandru Macar: No.
ZdG: Are you his daughter’s godfather?
Alexandru Macar: No.
ZdG: Valeriu Merzâncu.
Alexandru Macar: Valeriu Merzâncu. I don’t know him.
ZdG: Are you sure?
Alexandru Macar: I tell you, I don’t know him.
ZdG: You don’t know Merzâncu Valeriu?
Alexandru Macar: Merzâncu Valeriu? I know a different Merzâncu, he is my client.
ZdG: Another Merzâncu, Mihail, and you don’t know Valeriu?
Alexandru Macar: Well, I know him a little.
ZdG: You never represented his interests as a laywer!?
Alexandru Macar: These are my business interests, I can’t tell you. I have my professional secrets.
“I am not hiding anything, you should know.”
An hour and a half after this discussion, Alexandru Macar appeared at the court hearing at the Hâncești Court as Valeriu Merzâncu’s lawyer, in the process in which he requested his reinstatement. Although he initially announced that he was “giving an interview”, Alexandru Macar later dodged. He changed his statements, affirming that he did not say that he did not know Valeriu Merzâncu. “I told you I can’t give the names of the people I work with. This is a professional secret. I cannot reveal the name of my client if he/she doesn’t want to. That is what the lawyer’s regulation forbids me to do.”
I asked the lawyer if it is ethical to attend court hearings in the court led by his father, considering that he was in an affinity relationship with his client. “I am not hiding anything, you should know. There is the Ethics and Discipline Commission of the Bar Union and the Judicial Inspection. For example, I do not know who the president of the Supreme Court of Justice is. Does it mean he is not allowed to attend meetings? Each judge is independent and irremovable and has the right to examine cases. If he feels suspicious, he may refrain from examining the case, right?”
ZdG met Mihail Macar, the president of the Hâncești Court, in front of his house in Hâncești, and he told us that he would not know Valeriu Merzâncu. Mihail and Alexandru Macar are also targeted in the statements of the forester Vasile Frunză, who said that, at the request of the head of Bobeica Forest District, he took wood to the house of the Macar family in Hâncești.
The family business of the head of Bujor Forest District
Valeriu Merzâncu has worked in the forestry for over 30 years, and was head of the Bujor Forest District practically throughout all this period. He managed no less than 5.300 hectares of forest. His brother, Mihail Merzâncu, also a forester, is now mayor of Cotul Morii commune, elected on the lists of the Socialist Party of Moldova, the party that promoted the current director of the Moldsilva Agency, Dumitru Cojocaru.
ZdG found that, in the position of forest protector assigned by law, Valeriu Merzâncu and his family have built real businesses that have as raw material wood from the forests of Moldova.
His wife, Maria Merzâncu, is the founder and administrator of Dorin, a company that manages a wood processing workshop in the village of Bujor. In 2013, through the program “Pare 1 + 1”, the company obtained 200 000 lei from the state for the development of the business, production of pellets. Some of the buildings in which the wood processing workshop in Bujor operates are registered in the name of Dorina Merzâncu-Buță, Valeriu Merzâncu’s daughter; they were purchased when she was 20 years old.
Dorina, who wants to become a judge, owns almost five hectares of agricultural land. She also states that she owns, since 2019, a Nissan Qashqai, manufactured in 2019, which costs about 25.900 euros. In the year in which she bought the car, together with her husband, Andrian Buță, she contracted a loan worth 15 000 euros, due in 2024. In the statemnet of wealth and interests for 2019, the judiciary assistant declared no less than 53.200 euros, ie over one million lei, which she obtained following the marriage celebration.
“It is not allowed to film inside. You may film outside”
On entering the Merzâncu family, Andrian Buță also started a wood business. In 2018, he founded the company Grand Strategic Trade, which now manages a wood processing workshop at the entrance to the village of Leușeni, very close to the route leading to the customs of the same name. The company produces and sells pallets, including through ad sites.
“At the moment, there are two standard sizes in stock: 80 per 1 meter 20 and one 1 meter per 1 meter 20. But we make all sizes. We make any size to order,” Andrian Buță told us, in a telephone conversation after we called him at the phone number indicated in an ad. “The 80 per 1 meter 20 costs 85 lei within Chișinău, with delivery and VAT included. We are talking about palettes, not ‘second hand’,” he told us.
At the end of March, dozens of thick tree trunks were stored on the territory of the wood processing unit in Leușeni village, and the sound of the saw could be heard from as far as the village. We entered the territory to ask the business administrator, Andrian Buță, where the raw material that feeds his business comes from and about any connection with his father-in-law’s business. However, when we entered, he led us to the gate, avoiding the discussion inside the woodworking unit.
– Good afternoon. I’m a journalist from ZdG… We are writing an article about wood, about forests, about logging. Are you Mr. Buță? Can you tell me where you got this wood from?
– This wood, where did you bring it from and have you got any documents?
– Yes, please, go away…. Of course we have all the documents.
– Can you show them?
– Sir, please. We’ll talk later….
When he saw that we were trying to film, he asked us to leave the territory, locked the gate and signaled to the employees to stop the pallet manufacturing process, closing the access to the building inside the unit.
– Why did you close the gate like that? Is it prohibited to film here?
– Well, you cannot film inside. You may film outside.
– Why is it prohibeted? Why did you signal your employees to leave? Mr. Buță, have you got anything to hide?
– No, nothing.
– So you told them to close the gate, and the men who worked here left… You have nothing to hide, have you?
“I am not that stupid to accept such stuff.”
In about an hour, I returned to the place. This time, Andrian Buță was at the gate and talking to Dorin Merzâncu, his brother-in-law and Valeriu Merzâncu’s son, employed as a foreman-forester at Bujor Forest District. Using uncensored words, he urged Andrian Buță, his brother-in-law, not to talk to us. He then got in the car and started driving towards the ZdG reporter.
Later, Andrian Buță avoided telling us the name of the person he talked to on the territory of the wood processing unit, the one who tried to intimidate us, because “it would not be nice of me. He is a person from the village,” said Buță, and avoided admitting that he was, in fact, his brother-in-law, a native of Bujor village.
Andrian Buță refused to be filmed and to show us the documents regarding the origin of the wood on the territory of the company he manages. However, he stated that he has all the documents in order, and the wood would have been bought legally. “Absolutely in accordance with the plan, I respect exactly. I violate no laws, absolutely nothing. I’m not an old man of 100 years who doesn’t know what a company should have and what it shouldn’t have.”
– How can illegal things be done today, when there’s everything in the internet. I’m not that stupid to do such stuff.
– This wood here, can you show us that everything is marked and bought with an invoice?
– Well… mmm. The accounting is not here on the spot. There are competent bodies. There is an invoice. The accounting is based on the invoice. I mean, there are procedures. I’m not an accountant to bring you now the invoice …
– Show us that this wood is marked, that you brought it on the invoice on this date.
– Why should I show it to you?
– We are journalists and we are writing an article.
– So I have to show it to a simple journalist?
-Well, yes. Let’s invite the Ecology Inspection, for example, let them come and verify. Do you want it?
– I don’t know. Call whoever you want, only the person should be competent, someone who knows these things. Not a journalist. You may want to ask me who the people who work inside are.
In the end, Andrian Buță specified that he had worked in the USA, and that “what you see here, I bought on my own money… Go and ask in the village who I am and people will tell you… ” Seeing that we were filming him, he took out his phone and photographed us. “I took a picture of you as you filmed me. And that’s it,” he argued his decision.
“Why are you filming? Do you want someone to hit you with a crowbar over the head one day?”
Dorin Merzâncu, his brother-in-law, did not go too far. At the wheel of a Dacia Duster, he waited for us at the exit from Leușeni and followed us for a few kilometers, to the intersection leading to Bujor village, where the Merzâncu family lives and where he manages another wood processing unit. He later followed us in the village, while we were filming the headquarters of the Forest District in the locality and the wood processing unit managed by his family.
While we were trying to find Valeriu Merzâncu, the head of the Bujor Forest District, his son stopped in front of the institution and threatened us: “Why are you filming? Do you want someone to hit you with a crowbar over the head one day?” He went away, but continued to follow us until we got out of the town. There was no one at the headquarters of the Bujor Forest District, the door being locked. The institution is located a few dozens of meters from the home of the Merzâncu family. We called Valeriu Merzâncu as we approached Bujor village, but he told us that he did not want to talk to us.
– We want to talk to you.
– Sorry, no.
“Nowadays people get to forestry to make their fortunes and to steal the forests.”
A few years ago, due to disagreements with the same Valeriu Merzâncu, another forester from the Buhnă family was forced to give up forestry. Now, the man grieves over the fate of Moldovan forests.
“I was not absent from work, but they fired me claiming that I was absent for four consecutive hours, which is not true. If I brought them about 3,000 euros then, I would still be working today. But I’m not the one to pluck the forest and bring them money. After leaving the forest, I went to Italy to work to support my family. We picked apples and then we worked on hemp farms. This is what we did, instead of staying at home to work and play with our grandchildren, to be proud of something that we can leave behind. They make us steal and destroy our nature here,” tells us the former forester, Ion Buhnă.
“Currently, there are no people in the forest to care for it, to plant, to grow the forest. Nowadays people get to the forestry to make their fortunes and to steal it, to reduce the forest areas,” reproaches Ion Buhnă.