When Dr. Mihaela Cutui first blew the whistle in 2018, she didn’t know how bad it would get. She simply saw corruption hurting her colleagues and damaging her field’s reputation and decided to report it. Three years later, Cutui is still mired in 13 lawsuits and alleged attempts to discredit her.
Cutui is the vice-president of the College of Dentists (CMS) of Timiș, a region in western Romania. CMS is a branch of a much larger parent organization, the Romanian College of Dentists (CMSR). For years, Cutui has claimed that “the College-type organization is used only in the personal interest of a small group of people,” according to a recent interview with WNN. In Romania, all physicians who want to practice dentistry must become members of the CMSR, leaving the organization’s leaders with a monopoly over who can practice dentistry. Cutui claims that many of these leaders are corrupt, giving membership to prospective dentists who can pay and often overlooking requirements for membership.
Cutui says that in 2018, she looked into the credentials of the leaders of CMSR and noticed some irregularities. The president of CMSR, Dr. Ecaterina Ionescu, had claimed to have published 13 Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) articles when she applied to become a university professor in 2006. However, she had published none. Two published articles are required to apply to become a university professor, a title Ionescu still holds.
In 2018, Cutui made her first disclosure to officials at the Romanian Ministry of Health. A physician from outside of the EU, Adi Ammar, applied to practice dentistry with CMS. When he arrived to enroll, he brought an interpreter. At this point, Cutui realized that he did not speak Romanian, an essential requirement for enrollment in CMS. Even though he clearly did not speak Romania, Ammar showed Cutui a certificate issued by CMSR claiming that he was fluent in Romanian. According to Cutui, Ammar appeared irritated when confronted with this irregularity with his application and responded, “[W]hy in our country, in Timiș, it cannot be solved like in Bucharest?”
According to Cutui, allowing doctors from outside of the EU to practice in Romania is part of a larger scheme to gain access to practice in other, more restrictive EU countries. “They come register and go home for three years. If your diploma is recognized and you have proof that you have worked for three years in an EU state, then you can practice anywhere. In Romania, it’s the easiest to get that.”
Soon after, Cutui realized that the whereabouts of the dues that the roughly 20,000 members of CMSR pay annually were unaccounted. Reports that the top three leaders of CMSR should have created never came. Corin Penciuc, the president of the Sălaj branch, stated that: “In 8 years, no written document on the budget, on the budget execution, was given, neither in the national council nor in the general assembly.”
At this point, Cutui was certain that she had to do something.
Retaliation and Escalation
After publicly disclosing the case of Ammar, Cutui was summoned before CMSR’s Superior Disciplinary Commission under allegations that she had spoken to the press before dealing with the complaint internally. CMSR claimed that she had violated the terms of her membership and “wanted to fire me.” In response, Cutui went on a hunger strike in September of 2019 to bring attention to the case and pressure the Romanian Ministry of Health to invite her to discussions. The strike only lasted a day as the Ministry responded to her complaints.
Although CMSR abandoned their original claim, they quickly took up several other disciplinary complaints, with each of them increasing in severity and possible punishment. Cutui was brought into civil court in Bucharest as well, in a suit that she says was “to keep silent and scare me.”
Cutui credits her lawyer, Gabriela Mihut, and Florin Ivan from the association “Imagine of Romania” for her ability to defend herself legally and continue with her claims. Cutui states that “Lawyer Gabriela [Mihut] strives for judges to understand our cases and the fact that without telling the truth, there is no progress and justice. They have become experts in our defense.”
Cutui states that due to the retaliation against her, Timiș College is no longer allowed to participate in the profession. “We are boycotted, and the national leadership seeks in every way to lie and mislead the national authorities,” she states. “I want you to understand that in the Romanian medical system there are conflicts of interest: people who work in the public system and are paid from public money have positions in the private system as well, therefore if you complain to the authorities, nothing happens because those who have to apply the law, are guilty and then they hide.”
Upcoming 2021 Romanian Whistleblower Law Change
Romania is one of the first EU member states to propose a bill to overhaul their national whistleblower systems in preparation for the December 2021 (EU) Directive deadline. The bill was the focus of the recent 18th edition of the Tax, Law & Lobby Conference held in Romania and backed by internationally renowned whistleblower advocacy organizations. Whistleblower advocates recommended a battery of changes to Romanian whistleblower law and have detailed them in numerous communications with Romanian Ministry of Justice officials, including:
- July 11, 2018 letter from Steve Kohn and Bradley Birkenfeld to the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Parliament
- April 1, 2021, draft law by the office of the Member of Parliament of Romania, Sebastian Burduja
- April 8, 2021, total of 161 pages submitted in writing and also verbally argued at the public debate that was organized by the Ministry of Justice
- April 20, 2021, Tax, Law, Lobby: Whistleblower Focus
Multiple Romanian Ministry of Justice employees are allies of the current bill, which would increase whistleblower protections and create better systems for reporting directly to government officials. Mihai Pasca, State Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, as well as Silvia Tabusca, and Teodora Stoian, Personal Advisors to the Minister of Justice, have shown support for the bill and are working to improve it. Representatives Ana-Maria Barladeanu, Ana-Maria Neamtu, and Adrian Dumitru from the Normative Acts Elaboration Department (DEAN) are also working to put the law into practice in its best possible form. Carmen Necula of the European Affairs & Human Rights Directorate (DAEDO) and Ana-Lorena Sava of the Crime Prevention Directorate (DPC) have also supported the bill.
Cutui also supports the bill, saying that she believes it will effectively protect and reward future Romanian whistleblowers. She said that the new law is needed because of a “concentration of corrupt people in government, in institutions, in education, in health.” Cutui emphasized that many Romanians are willing to make reports in the public interest. However, with no system in place to protect them, they are reluctant to come forward. “From within, we can do nothing because they have the decision-making power, and we are empty-handed. We have just a voice.”
While Cutui supports the change, she believes there is a long way to go for whistleblowers in Romania.
“They are everywhere, in all public functions. At the level of the Romanian College of Dentists there is a group of people who have committed serious deeds in the past, who have broken the law and now and no one has taken action against them. Every complaint of ours, died in the drawer of someone who had to do justice. [It is s]ad for us.”
While Cutui’s experience as a medical whistleblower has been painful and difficult, the bill provides hope that the situation for Romanian whistleblowers may soon change. She pointed to the international attention that the EU whistleblower directive has brought to the plight of whistleblowers in Romania. With high-profile whistleblower advocates like Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) speaking out for their cause. She hopes that external international pressure will bring about real change for future generations of Romanian whistleblowers.