Credit: Attila Biro

Romania’s Wise Guy of Energy Trading

Nicolae Buzăianu built a fortune in Romania buying cheap energy from government suppliers and selling it on the private market at a huge markup.

Some of those deals sparked criminal investigations that have jailed government officials. Yet Buzăianu, 50, one of Romania’s most famous businessmen, hasn’t been charged with a crime.

Media reports sketch a rapid rise for the Romanian and Swiss citizen, who holds a doctorate in the criminal tax law of both countries. In 1993, he started a consulting and management company in Romania with his brother Constantin and a Swiss partner, and has maintained a second base in Switzerland. Along the way, Buzăianu became a leading electrical energy trader and secured official positions as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from the West African country of Gambia. He later served as the country’s ambassador to Monaco.

It’s unclear why Gambia would choose someone of Romanian and Swiss citizenship as a diplomatic representative, though Buzăianu did have business interests in the country. He and a relative, Dragoș Buzăianu, received a monopoly on timber exports from then-President Yahya Jammeh, and helped illegally export hundreds of millions of dollars worth of rosewood to China, according to records obtained by OCCRP. The Buzăinaus and Jammeh co-owned WestWood Gambia, which paid the president $15 million in fees from 2010 to 2016.

(Read more: The Inner Circle that Helped Jammeh Steal a Billion Dollars)

Buzăianu established his primary energy trading company, now known as Energy Holding, in 2000. His business model was simple: Buy energy at preferential prices from state-owned producers and sell it for a hefty profit. He became known as one of Romania’s “wise guys of energy.”

In just 18 months, from January 2011 to July 2012, Energy Holding bought electricity at about 32.4 euros per megawatt hour, a 36 percent discount off the the usual average rate of about 51 euros. The contract cost Romania about 314 million euros in lost revenue between 2006 and 2012, according to court documents. (The figure is based on exchange rates as of July 2012.)

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Buzăianu’s renown was memorialized when his name was engraved on the window of the House of Bijan, a Beverly Hills menswear shop with a reputation as one of the most expensive in the world. According to a local media report in 2015, his moniker was placed just above other notable customers, including Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel; and Dan Ioan Popescu, his own godfather and a former Romanian minister of industry.

In 2010, Forbes estimated the Buzăianu brothers’ wealth at 140 to 150 million euros, though by 2012 the figure had dropped below 45 million euros. A more recent estimate was unavailable.

Falling Fortunes

OCCRP determined that Energy Holding’s shares were transferred in 2005 to a Swiss entity Buzăianu was connected to at the time, and to a Cyprus offshore. In an interview two years later, Buzăianu said he no longer had anything to do with the company.

In 2012, a special administrator for the Romanian state-owned power producer Hidroelectrica decided to end the cheap supply deal with Energy Holding and denounced terms of the contract. Three years later, Romania’s Competition Council fined Energy Holding 2.7 million euros after determining the contracts breached Romania’s competition law and affected the fledgling liberalization of the country’s energy trading market.

In 2016, Romanian prosecutors charged Energy Holding with tax evasion and money laundering. Sources from the General Prosecutor’s Office told OCCRP partner the RISE Project that Energy Holding bought land at inflated prices.

Today, the company is in bankruptcy proceedings and the Romanian government is seeking to claw back some of its money.

When queried by RISE Project reporters, the prosecutor’s office declined to say if Buzăianu faces any criminal charges. A lawyer representing Energy Holding said Buzăianu declined interview requests and to comment on the investigations and lawsuits.

According to Romanian court records, a leading supplier of services to Energy Holding is Selectra AG, a Swiss company Buzăianu owned. In 2007 the two companies signed a service agreement for software to monitor electricity consumption in a multi-user system. In March 2013, Energy Holding was charged a fee of US$117,000 for use and maintenance of the software.

Prison Time for Some

In 2016, Codruț Sereș, Romania’s former minister of Economy and Commerce, was sentenced to four years in jail in a criminal case related to contracts awarded to Energy Holding. Six other officials also were sentenced in the case.

In 2017, Elena Udrea, a former Romanian minister of tourism, was sent to trial on charges of money laundering and influence trafficking. Romanian anti-corruption prosecutors alleged that she received $3.8 million to ensure that Energy Holding would keep getting low-cost power from Hidroelectrica.

Romanian prosecutors last year closed a criminal case related to Energy Holding. Local media reported that prosecutors were looking into corruption allegations in connection to a contract to refurbish Iron Gates, the biggest hydropower plant in Romania.

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