Romania president says PM was an undercover spy

By Luiza Ilie BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's outgoing President Traian Basescu has accused his bitter rival and likely successor, Prime Minister Victor Ponta, of serving as an undercover intelligence officer between 1997 and 2001. Ponta dismissed the charge as "all lies". The latest row between the two leaders has flared in the midst of a presidential election campaign, which Ponta is expected to win. Basescu, who has served two consecutive terms, cannot run again and has thrown his weight behind a right-wing ally. "Victor Ponta must admit that he was an undercover officer of SIE (Romania's Foreign Intelligence Service), between 1997 and 2001," Basescu told private television channel Realitatea late on Monday. "This isn't a bomb, it is ... a reality which I am ready to prove." Espionage was already a talking point during the campaign for the Nov. 2-16 vote. Teodor Melescanu, who ran the Foreign Intelligence Service, resigned in September and joined the presidential race as an independent candidate one day later. Around the same time, Robert Turcescu, a popular television anchor, confessed live on air that he had been an undercover lieutenant-colonel for a spy service and resigned his post. Under Romanian law, outing oneself as a spy is illegal, but prosecutors did not press charges. "From 1995 when I graduated from law school and until today there are 20 years during which I have respected this country's laws," Ponta told reporters while attending a religious ceremony in the eastern Romanian city of Iasi. The justice minister in Ponta's government said Basescu's statement appeared to be a campaign ploy. A former prosecutor and amateur rally driver, Ponta has been prime minister since 2012 and his leftist alliance commands a large majority in parliament. The office of president is largely ceremonial but would give Ponta considerable power at key moments, including appointing a new prime minister. When he first came to power, Ponta drew a severe rebuke from the European Union over his efforts to impeach Basescu in a national referendum, raising concerns over rule of law. Romania has a record of colorful revelations during election campaigns. In 2009, media outlets hostile to Basescu leaked footage of what they said was him punching a child. Basescu denied the allegation and supporters variously said the footage showed a push not a punch, or said it was faked. (Editing by Matthias Williams Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)