A Thorn in Bush’s Side

A little over four years ago, a dark blue Ford SUV careened through a stop sign at 4:30 a.m. on a December night in Bucharest, Romania, broadsiding an oncoming taxicab and inflicting fatal head injuries on the passenger riding in the cab's back seat. The accident probably would have faded into obscurity had that passenger not been 50-year-old Teofil Peter, a beloved local rock star--often likened to a Romanian Bruce Springsteen--and had the driver of the U.S. government-owned SUV not been 31-year-old S/Sgt. Christopher VanGoethem, a U.S. Marine serving as the commander of the U.S. Embassy security detail, who had been drinking that night.

Four years later, following a series of frustrations that have roiled fans and Romanian government leaders alike, the issue is popping up again--at an especially inopportune time for U.S. officials. Newspapers throughout Romania last week were plastered with headlines announcing the musician's family's intention to protest what they see as the "insultingly" poor U.S. management of both VanGoethem's court martial and a subsequent civil suit at the April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest, where President Bush, who arrived in Romania late Tuesday night, is hoping to shore up his foreign-policy legacy. The family has since backed down from its threaten protest, reluctant to get caught up in the circus atmosphere of demonstrations often in evidence at multinational summits, according to their lawyer. But they are far from finished in pressing for the attention of U.S. leaders.

The issue is hardly the thorniest matter facing the Bush administration officials at the summit. NATO's members are bracing for fiery debates over the faltering war effort in Afghanistan; bids for membership in the alliance by Georgia and Ukraine, over the objections of Moscow, and a Greek-led spat over Macedonia's name, among other topics. But the unresolved diplomatic dispute is just one more sore spot for an American administration in need of some good news. Romanian President Traian Basescu raised the issue in a bilateral meeting with President Bush on Wednesday afternoon, just before the start of the summit, noting in a joint press conference soon afterward that he believed Bush would try to "find as fast as possible a reasonable solution acceptable for the family of Teo Peter."

The dispute could have broader strategic implications. Romania has been a key tactical ally in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans since joining NATO in 2004 and has figured prominently in recent Russian and American maneuvering to restructure a rapidly developing post-Soviet power dynamic in Eastern Europe. While the Romanian public has remained largely supportive of the country's cooperation with Washington, the relationship has not been without controversy; sticking points have included the U.S. military bases established on Romanian territory and the Romanian government's participation in the now-infamous system of secret CIA prisons.

The Peter case has been controversial from the outset. Because VanGoethem was working for the embassy--and was therefore covered by the same Vienna Convention diplomatic immunity clauses extended to other support staff--he was spirited out of Romania the day after the accident, igniting Romanian anger.

VanGoethem was found not guilty of negligent homicide and adultery in a military trial that ended Jan. 31, 2006, but guilty of obstruction of justice and making false statements. While U.S. officials insist the trial was conducted fairly, many Romanians saw the verdict as a rubber-stamp judgment rendered by a military justice system rigged to protect its own. Top Romanian officials publicly committed to assisting the Peter family with the cost of filing a civil suit. The family has since pressed the U.S. government for compensation for their loss but considers the offers made so far to be insultingly low, said John Gurley, a Washington-based international trade lawyer who is representing the Peter family. Romanian officials have brought their complaints directly to the attention of two former U.S. ambassadors to Romania, former secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush. But, according to Romanian Embassy spokeswoman Ilinca Ilie, the Romanians are unaware of any developments in the case since 2006.

The crash occurred just after VanGoethem had dropped off Ilse Wentworth, a fellow embassy employee, at home, after the two spent the evening barhopping together. VanGoethem, who was married with two children, told State Department officials who questioned him after the incident that they went to get pizza after the bars, but Wentworth testified that they went to his home, had sex and fell asleep.

After the verdict, VanGoethem received a letter of reprimand that threatened the renewal of his contract, but he dodged much harsher penalties; he could have received up to 10 years of confinement, loss of rank down to E-1 and forfeiture of all pay and allowances. VanGoethem, who could not be reached for comment, left the Marines on July 9, 2007.

Critics of the outcome point to a list of legal flaws in VanGoethem's trial. They complain that the taxi driver should have been called as a witness at the trial (U.S. officials insist they were unable to compel him to attend the trial against his wishes). And they fault VanGoethem's blood-alcohol test, which did not find him to be legally intoxicated but was administered "a few hours after the event," according to an official at the Marine Corps legal division. The official added that problems with the test's reliability prevented prosecutors from introducing it at trial.

"He was never charged [with drunk driving] because there was just no evidence," said the Marine Corps legal official, who had tracked the case and agreed to speak about it on the condition that he not be quoted by name. "But [he was found not guilty of negligent homicide because] the Virginia state trooper who went over and did the investigation indicated that he'd have to be Superman to react in time--whether he was drunk or not--because the stop sign was blocked," the official said.

With the criminal trial now long over, the issue has boiled down to the sticky subject of money. The Romanian government joined the Peter family in hiring noted D.C. law firm Arent Fox to represent them and filed suit July 20, 2006, under the Foreign Claims Act, which allows foreigners to request compensation for losses due to noncombatant actions of U.S. military personnel. But the Romanians have heard little to their liking in the year and a half since then. According to Gurley, military authorities made an initial offer of $11,500 in October 2005, before the formal request had been filed; the family responded with a letter saying they had spent $5,000 on funeral expenses alone. The offer was then upped to $16,500 in January 2006, a number also roundly rejected--and mocked in the Romanian press (one local headline translated as: "The Americans Take Us for Stupid.") The family asked for more than $1 million in the suit filed that summer.

"One of the reasons this has taken too long, in our minds, is that it was the very first case [of this type of claim] in Romania, so through no fault of the U.S. government, they were looking at Romania for the first time," said Gurley. "That being said, we have presented them with hundreds of pages of documentation, much of which was submitted almost a year ago, and [despite] the reams of information we have provided to them, the Army has not moved speedily to dispose of this issue, nor to ask us any additional questions. We do not think there is a legitimate reason to delay this case any longer."

The Army, which oversees the Peter claim, did not respond to requests for comment on the status of the negotiations or the length of time it is taking them to resolve the case. State Department officials working with Romanian government staffers on the ground continue to express sympathy for the Peter family's loss but declined to comment further.

"We have expressed regret several times for this tragic accident. We know that this is an important matter for the family and for many other Romanians. We hope this matter will be resolved in the near future, but because this is a pending legal matter we cannot comment further at this time," said a U.S. Embassy official, who agreed to discuss the case on the condition that he not be quoted by name, in an e-mailed statement from Romania.

Gurley is now cautiously optimistic that a settlement will be reached within the next few weeks. But the Peter family's feelings remain raw. "We've waited a very long time for this case to be closed, and it's not yet. For us, it's been over three years of waiting. And nobody seemed to care," said Dorian Peter, Teo Peter's brother. "It's very difficult for us, losing a person like Teo. And everyone here knows that VanGoethem was guilty, but the trial--I just don't know how this could happen. It's injustice. In these three years, I learned a new word in English: ordeal. And this ordeal is not finished for us yet."