Cablegate: Potential Impact in Romania of Teo Peter “Final
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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 BUCHAREST 001286
STATE FOR EUR/NCE - JUDY GARBER; NSC FOR STERLING
EO 12958 DECL: 11/16/2017
TAGS PREL, PGOV, KLIG, MARR, RO
SUBJECT: POTENTIAL IMPACT IN ROMANIA OF TEO PETER “FINAL
Classified By: Ambassador Nicholas F. Taubman for Reasons 1.4(b) and (d ).
1. (C) Summary: The impending “final offer” by the U.S. Army Foreign Claims Service, Europe to the family of the late Romanian rock star Teofil Peter, who was killed in a 2004 car accident involving Embassy Bucharest’s former Marine detcommander, seems certain to have a significant, negative effect on the U.S.-Romanian relationship. In the likely event that the family of Peter will go public with the news that the U.S. government has met their multi-million dollar settlement claim with an offer of only $80,000, Romanian leaders and opinion makers will react loudly and emotionally, calling into question some of the most important features of our bilateral partnership. President Basescu, PM Tariceanu and other prominent politicians will almost certainly rally to the family’s side, even if some normally pro-American officials will still try behind the scenes to calm the anticipated public outrage. In particular, the popular outcry over what will be seen by most Romanians as an insultingly small offer to Peter’s survivors will prompt renewed calls, with much more potential popular support, for the rapid withdrawal of Romanian troops from Iraq. Likewise, backing in the Romanian parliament and among members of the public for the new U.S. troop presence at joint U.S.-Romanian military facilities on the Black Sea will plummet, at least temporarily. The November 21 notification date to the Peter family’s lawyers is fast approaching, and will nearly coincide with the December 4 anniversary date of Peter’s death, the occasion for past anti-U.S. demonstrations in Romania. In short, we are bracing ourselves for a stormy downturn in the relationship, prompted by the continuing negative legacy of the death of this Romanian cultural icon. Some of the damage to our popular standing and to our interests in Romania may be lasting. End Summary.
2. (C) Teo Peter, one of Romania’s best known and most beloved rock musicians, was killed on December 4, 2004, in a Bucharest car accident involving the taxi he was riding in and the official Embassy vehicle being driven in the early morning hours by former Bucharest Marine detachment commander Staff Sgt. Christopher Van Goethem. Van Goethem departed Romania within a few hours after the accident, under the terms of his diplomatic immunity, but many Romanians viewed his abrupt departure before local investigators had the opportunity to question him and conduct tests on his blood alcohol level as a slap in the face and an effort to shield the Marine from justice. Demonstrations were held outside the Embassy, and an effort was made to rename a nearby street after the deceased musician. Sgt. Van Goethem did subsequently face a range of charges in the U.S. military justice system. A military courts martial concluded in January 2006 that while he was guilty of making false statements and obstructing justice, he was not guilty of the more serious negligent homicide charge. The jury, somewhat unexpectedly, limited the Marine’s punishment to an official letter of reprimand. This news brought, in turn, another wave of protests.
3. (C) The U.S. Army Claims Service, Europe currently plans to send legal representatives of the Peter family final offers amounting to $80,000, divided among three claimants, including Teofil Claudiu Peter, the musician’s son. In briefing material recently forwarded to the Embassy, the Army’s Foreign Claims Service states that the Peter family claims were adjudicated pursuant to the Foreign Claims Act, which “uses foreign law to measure damages.” The accompanying press guidance then asserts: “That means the law of the country in which the claim arises are used -- in tQs case Romanian law.” “The awards are consistent with Romanian court decisions measuring damages in similar cases,” the guidance continues, “and reflect U.S. and Romanian principles of just compensation and respect for human life.” The U.S. Army Claims Service, Europe documents go on to say that the Service contracted “a prestigious Romanian law firm to advise the Commission on the pertinent provisions of the Romanian law...(and) determined that the amount requested by the claimants greatly exceeded the economic loss substantiated by the claimants. Moreover, the Commission found no relevant precedent justifying an award of moral damages anywhere near the amount requested.” Part of the award that has been approved will be centered on reimbursing
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the family for the funeral costs of Mr. Peter’s burial.
4. (C) Teo Peter’s survivors reportedly initially requested a multi-million dollar settlement. In a November 1 letter to the Ambassador from the Peter family’s law firm, Arent Fox, attorney John M. Gurley suggests that the claimants are currently requesting an award of $1 million. In what is labeled “The Peter Family Claim: October 2007,” Gurley cites various past precedents for awards at that level or above, including for an Australian woman’s successful claim for $1 million after being hit by a Navy serviceman’s golf ball, and a $1.9 million claim to survivors of a teenage Mexican goat herder, the victim ostensibly of an accident involving the U.S. military. Gurley also cites the $2 million awards presented to the survivors of the Italian cable car accident involving a U.S. warplane, a case which has been cited repeatedly in the Romanian media and by Romanian government officials. Gurley writes in his letter that he had unsuccessfully requested a transfer of the claim from the U.S. Army Claims Service, Europe in Mannheim to Fort Meade (the headquarters of the Claims Service) or Washington, D.C. Citing “the very discouraging signals” the Peter family has received to date from the Claims Service, Gurley concludes by saying he hoped the Peter claim could be settled “in a manner suitable to all parties” before the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, asserting that “it would truly be unfortunate for Romania, as well as the United States, if the NATO summit were to be marred by the U.S. government’s inability to close the Teo Peter matter in a fair fashion.”
5. (C) Once the award is communicated to the family’s legal counsel at Arent Fox on Wednesday, November 21 (the day before Thanksgiving), we expect the family and its legal representatives to move quickly to condemn the U.S. offer publicly and to appeal to top Romanian officials and the Romanian media to put immediate pressure on U.S. representatives for a higher award. Romanian MFA officials have reported to us informally that the family has met with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister in recent weeks to express their determination to conduct a public fight should the final award offer be unacceptably low. Under these circumstances, and in light of the proximity to the anniversary of the rock musician’s death, we expect the Embassy to be the focus of multiple demonstrations, including concerts and candlelight vigils. There will be a renewed effort to rename after Teo Peter the street on which the Embassy is located, and it is possible that city officials may accede to the anticipated wave of public indignation over the amount of the award offer.
6. (C) Another report we received in recent days was a suggestion that Romanian law enforcement authorities, working through EU channels, would attempt to serve a legal summons to Van Goethem, who we believe is currently a U.S. Embassy dependent at AmEmbassy Berlin.
7. (C) More seriously, we anticipate that the Peter award offer, and subsequent media attention, will embolden critics of the Romanian deployment in Iraq, along with other anti-American politicians like Chamber of Deputies President Bogdan Olteanu, to call for the immediate withdrawal of Romanian troops. Under these circumstances, they could build sufficient traction to reinvigorate the opposition to Romania’s support for U.S. efforts there, and potentially force a change in policy. While President Basescu has been steadfast in his support for our continued troop presence in Iraq, he would be conscious of the fact that even before a renewed public outcry over the Peter case, only one-third of the Romanian public supports maintaining troops there. Either way, reinvigoration of the controversy over U.S. handling of the case will put our closest friends within the Romanian government, including President Basescu, into a very awkward political position. Likely enough, the Liberal Party and other political groups hoping to find a hook to boost their support in the run-up to the November 25 Euro-parliamentary elections in Romania will wrap themselves in the flag and try to capitalize on the political moment with anti-U.S. political rhetoric. More broadly, news of the Peter award offer will cut deeply into support for the new U.S. military presence at joint facilities on the Black Sea, including Kogalniceanu air base and the Babadag training grounds -- at least temporarily. While public approval of the bases has been steady, our contacts have always cautioned us that it is vulnerable to concerns over an increased terrorist threat to Romania -- and to negative stories concerning the conduct of U.S. service personnel, with the first point of reference the Teo Peter accident and the subsequent handling of the charges against Sgt. Van Goethem.
8. (C) There are other, less predictable, risk factors at play. In the wake of this week’s controversy over the Ambassador’s criticism of the Parliament’s efforts to undermine the independence of Romanian prosecutors and their ability to investigate cases of bribery and corruption, a controversy over the Teo Peter award could enable our critics and opponents on the Romanian political scene to undermine other important initiatives which are just gathering momentum. First and foremost among them is our accelerating effort, alongside Lockheed-Martin, to persuade Romania to pursue an F-16/JSF option to replace the country’s aging MiG fleet. Lockheed-Martin, in tandem with allies in the Presidency and Ministry of Defense, are seeking a “sole-source” route to the fighter plane decision, which they do not want to see tied up in the Brussels bureaucracy by the F-16/JSF’s principal European competitors, Grippen and Eurofighter. This was always going to be a tricky exercise, with an expectation that supporters of a European fighter option would loudly cry foul. A firestorm over the Teo Peter case could possibly represent a tipping point away from a U.S. option, if only because of the optics.
9. (C) What little guidance we have received from the U.S. Army Claims Service, Europe suggests that all Romanian media inquiries are to be steered towards the USAREUR public affairs staff, or alternatively USMC spokespersons at Quantico. This will limit severely our ability to respond here in Romania, and to help address some of the most pernicious charges that we will face. We believe that the risk of unintended consequences in this media strategy, across geographic, language and cultural barriers, is huge. That, too, has to be factored into our overall risk assessment of the impending Claims Service actions.
10. (C) In short, our hope is that this latest policy and public affairs challenge related to the 2004 car accident will be manageable. But we are concerned that under the present circumstances, some lasting damage could be done to our core interests, including keeping Romanian troops deployed in Iraq and continuing to build on the positive momentum in our close defense and security partnership with Bucharest. This has been an especially difficult issue from the beginning, and remains the biggest single “black spot” in our recent bilateral experience. TAUBMAN