Hit by corruption scandals

Beppe Grillo and the right-populist Movimento Cinque Stelle are making gains, writes Toby Abse

Beppe Grillo: benefiting from divisions in the Partito Democratico

Matteo Renzi’s path to triumphant re-election as secretary of the Partito Democratico (PD) in the primary on Sunday April 30 has met an unexpected obstacle. There is now an ongoing judicial investigation into alleged ‘influence trafficking’ by his 65-year-old father, Tiziano. Renzi senior has repeatedly asserted his innocence in the media, and continued to do so during an interrogation by magistrates on March 3, but he still remains a suspect.

As for his son, he is still the front runner in the PD primary, but the question of whether he can gain over 50% of the vote has been seriously raised by journalists in both the centre-left daily La Repubblica and its centre-right counterpart, Corriere della Sera - and not just by his rivals for the nomination, who might have an interest in talking themselves up. If Renzi does not gain an absolute majority, as opposed to a mere plurality of votes, the final run-off contest will be decided by the PD delegates elected on the three candidates’ lists, not by the hundreds of thousands of self-proclaimed PD sympathisers who will vote in the primary itself.

If the third-place candidate instructs his delegates to vote for the second-place candidate rather than for Renzi, the current leader might well lose. As things stand, this scenario is dependent on justice minister Andrea Orlando coming second and Michele Emiliano, the president of the Puglian region, coming third - Emiliano would instruct his delegates to vote for the social democratic Orlando to stop Renzi, whilst there is no guarantee that Orlando would reciprocate, given his low opinion of the erratic populist, Emiliano.

Meanwhile, Tiziano Renzi is allegedly at the centre of a massive corruption scandal involving hundreds of millions of euros’ worth of state contracts. Whether or not the allegation of ‘illegal influence trafficking’ being investigated by magistrates results in a trial, let alone a conviction (which in the Italian system would still be subject to two possible appeals, including to the supreme court, theCassazione), this scandal will have enormous implications for his son’s political career, and could potentially be extremely damaging for the PD as a whole in the forthcoming general election - especially if Matteo is re-elected PD leader on April 30 and so becomes PD candidate for premier.

The parallel with recent corruption scandals involving ‘influence trafficking’ by figures close to president Jacob Zuma in South Africa, and former president Park Geun-hye of South Korea, seem obvious, even if no Italian observer seems to have drawn them. This is not the first time that Tiziano has been the subject of a criminal investigation into a financial matter (and he claims he has been the victim of politically motivated elements of the judiciary anxious to attack his son1). On the earlier occasion - in 2015 (during his son’s premiership), the charge of fraudulent bankruptcy related to his own long-standing newspaper distribution business (set up before his son entered politics), not government contracts. As senator Miguel Gotor of the Movimento Democratico e Progressista (MDP) put it,

It would have been better if Tiziano Renzi had avoided the risk of influence, having a prime minister as a son. The saying, ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion’, applies here.2

Whilst Gotor - a distinguished professional historian before his entry into parliament - made his point with a certain amount of tact, Beppe Grillo, the leader of the right-populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement), has, as ever, shown no such inhibitions. Renzi junior said, perhaps unwisely: “If my father is guilty, he should have a double penalty” - which led a jubilant Grillo to proclaim on his blog: “He has ditched his dad.”3 Renzi used his own blog to respond to Grillo with phrases like “You act the Jackal, but the truth will arrive” - rashly getting drawn into the kind of flame war that the crude comedian adores.

Official secrets

Embarrassing as the allegations about his father are, perhaps the more immediate threat to Renzi junior comes from another allegation being made by the same investigating magistrates about the 34-year-old Luca Lotti, currently minister of sport under prime minister Paolo Gentiloni. Whilst Renzi senior was until very recently secretary of the local PD branch in the village of Rignano, where the Renzi family comes from, Lotti’s public role is rather more important. Lotti, a very close friend of Matteo - some have claimed Renzi treats him like a younger brother - was Renzi’s under-secretary throughout his premiership. It is widely believed that Gentiloni, dependent on Renzi’s backing for his own appointment as premier, had little choice about including Lotti in his government, and therefore gave him a minor post, which minimised his influence.

Needless to say, the allegation relates to the period when Lotti was in daily contact with his old boss, and hostile observers have suggested that he was unlikely to have engaged in any political action without the former premier’s knowledge or authorisation. Lotti is alleged to have tipped off the leading figures in Consip - the body overseeing the efficient use of public resources, which now handles the buying of all goods and services for the public administration - that its head offices were being bugged.

On March 15, Lotti easily survived the senate vote of no confidence in him tabled by M5S - it needs to be stressed that, if this motion had been passed, Italian parliamentary procedure dictates that the whole government would have fallen. Keeping Lotti in office was an indication of Matteo Renzi’s personal favouritism rather than any consistent stance based on the legal presumption of innocence (garantismo, as Italian politicians have called it4). On previous occasions, Renzi has sacrificed ministers when the personal involvement of an individual in a scandal - regardless of whether criminal charges were even brought - threatened to tarnish the whole government’s reputation. Indeed, in marked contrast to his recently adopted garantismo, Renzi had harshly criticised his predecessor, Enrico Letta, for not sacking Anna Maria Cancellieri as minister of justice over a friendly phone call to a long-standing female friend under criminal investigation.

This inconsistency was not the worst aspect of the PD’s behaviour in this case. Nor was the predictable and successful appeal to the loyalty of other coalition partners, such as the Nuovo Centro Destra (NCD - New Centre Right) of foreign minister Angelino Alfano, and assorted centrist fragments, most of whom had at least some parliamentarians in their ranks, who had had a chequered relationship with the criminal justice system. Whilst the pro-Lotti votes of the 14 followers of the recently convicted fraudster, Denis Verdini - still facing criminal investigation on numerous other counts yet to come to trial - stank to high heaven, it was the collusion with Forza Italiathat should have served as a warning of the following day’s events - the vote against barring the convicted criminal, Augusto Minzolini, from the senate, which I will discuss after concluding my survey of the Consip scandal.

The vote in the senate on March 15 was 161 for Lotti, 52 against and two abstentions. BothForza Italiaand the MDP walked out before it was taken. In theory, Forza Italiais supposed to be an ally of the rightwing Lega Nord, the largest force other than the Grillini themselves backing the M5S motion.5 On the surface, the Forza Italia walkout might have seemed merely a sign of continuity with more than two decades of hostility to the judiciary, or garantismo as they would prefer to describe it. The MDP walkout has a rather more honourable motivation - hostile as its members are to Lotti, they could not vote for a motion that might have brought down the Gentiloni government and precipitated an early general election, especially since their split from the PD had been provoked by Renzi’s desire to move in precisely that direction.

Although the MDP absented itself from the vote, the harshest and most effective speech against the minister of sport was made by the above-named MDP senator, Miguel Gotor. It culminated in the demand: “You ought to resign, or Gentiloni should suspend you from office. Be a sportsman - protect the executive.”6 Looking directly at Gotor, an incandescent Lotti responded:

The political forces that are asking me to take a step back are culturally subaltern and politically incorrect. You call into question my most precious possession, my morality. I never warned Marroni - whoever claims that I did slanders me.7

While Lotti is the only politician facing accusations of revealing an official secret and favouring a crime in the Consip case, similar allegations are being made against no less a figure in the Italian state apparatus than general Tullio Del Sette. The 55-year-old del Sette, who joined the national gendarmerie, the carabinieri, as a very young man in 1970, was promoted to his current post as the national commander by the Renzi government in December 2014 - though some maliciously inclined observers might suggest he had a personal debt of gratitude to Renzi and his inner circle, including Lotti, which might lead him to sabotage attempts to collect incriminating wire taps on corrupt officials with whom they might have had some connection. General Emanuele Saltalamacchia, the commander of the Tuscan carabinieri legion, is also under investigation on the same grounds.

Lotti, Del Sette and Saltalamacchia deny all wrongdoing, but it is worth emphasising that the claims about leaking official secrets (against Lotti at any rate) do not only come from Consip executives (particularly Luigi Marroni, the current CEO of the company, and Marco Gasparri, the Consip official accused of taking a large bribe), who might perhaps have something to gain by discrediting government or Carabinieri figures if they wish to avoid prison, or at least get shorter sentences. Filippo Vannoni, the president ofPubliacqua, the Florentine municipal water company, who is a witness rather than the object of criminal investigation, has also told the magistrates that Lotti told him about the bugs in the Consip office.

Whilst the general gist of the allegations against Lotti, Del Sette, Saltalamacchia and the shady Neapolitan entrepreneur, Alfredo Romeo - the man accused of bribing Consip executive Marco Gasparri and various possible intermediaries, who might have influenced Consip on his behalf - has been known since December 20168, until March 2017 the coverage in mainstream papers such as Repubblica and Corriere had been relatively low-key. Only Il Fatto Quotidiano had fastened on to such small fragments of information as it could gather, with what often appeared as such obsessive concern as to seem no more than a desperate effort to divert attention from M5S’s Roman antics.

Backhanders

It was Romeo’s arrest on March 1 that precipitated events. The police search of the wastepaper basket in Romeo’s office uncovered the method the conspirators had resorted to after they had been tipped off about the magistrates’ wire-tapping - the use of bits of paper known in Sicilian Mafia circles as pizzini. Whilst one can see this method may have appeared more secure than telephone calls after Romeo became aware that the Consip office had been bugged (and one assumes Romeo was aware that all forms of electronic communication could be hacked into), it seems very strange that Romeo did not invest in a shredder, but just tore the pizzini into rather large pieces that could easily be fitted together by the carabinieri, rather like a child’s jigsaw.

The carabinieri assume that the words “€30,000 for T” were a reference to payments to Tiziano Renzi, and that “€5,000 every two months for RC” denoted backhanders for the younger Florentine entrepreneur and close Renzi family friend, Carlo Russo. Interestingly, Alfredo Romeo, who refused to talk to the magistrates on March 6, despite his imprisonment, has never suggested that the pizzini are forgeries; he denies all wrongdoing, but his lawyers have resorted to the rather bizarre technical argument that, since the pizzini were found and reassembled in the absence of Romeo or any defence lawyer, they cannot be used as evidence against him in any possible trial.

Romeo has some deep experience of such matters and is probably a very shrewd tactician. In 1993, he was acquitted in a trial after pointing the finger at some corrupt politicians and, although he spent 79 days in prison awaiting trial in 2008, he was acquitted on all charges as a result of his appeal to Cassazione. The one undeniable connection between Alfredo Romeo and Matteo Renzi is the €60,000 donation made to Renzi’s Fondazione Big Bang (now renamed Fondazione Open) by the Neapolitan entrepreneur early in his premiership. Doubtless, this was an act of pure philanthropy, and we would not dream of suggesting that anything was required in return. Nonetheless, such obvious lack of judgement in his choice of donors to his factional foundation may prove a useful weapon in the hands of Renzi’s internal and external opponents.

The damage done to the PD by Renzi in his handling of the Consip scandal was compounded on the day after the vote in defence of the beleaguered minister of sport. On March 16, the votes of PD senators were decisive in saving the former director of news on RAI Uno (the main state television channel) - Forza Italia senator Augusto Minzolini - from prison. For all the pompous talk in the senate of the fumus persecutionis allegedly displayed by Minzolini’s political enemies, the crime in question was not remotely political, but a straightforward €65,000 credit card fraud, misusing a RAI company credit card for personal expenditure.

The senate vote to allow Minzolini to continue in parliamentary office (and thus automatically remain at liberty for the rest of his term) represented blatant defiance of the provisions of the same Severinolaw which had expelled Silvio Berlusconi from the senate on November 27 2013. Under theSeverinolaw, any parliamentarian sentenced to more than two years in prison should be barred from office - Minzolini’s sentence is two and a half years. Despite the strident denials of Renzi and his clique, the vote in favour of Lotti on March 15 and the vote to protect Minzolini on March 16 looked like a quid pro quo. On this occasion, one is compelled to accept that the judgement of Grillo’s blog - “The caste saves the caste”9 - is a fair summary of the events in the Italian senate.

The PD seems to have moved a lot closer to Forza Italia, and the repeal of the Severino law (or some other stratagem aimed at the political rehabilitation of Silvio Berlusconi) cannot be ruled out. Inevitably, the public reaction to the PD’s suicidal course has given M5S its highest ever opinion poll score - it now leads the PD by 32.3% to 26.8%.10 

Notes

1. Renzi junior appeared to repeat this claim in a recent edition of the television programme Porta a Porta, according to Corriere della Sera. Until recently, Matteo had avoided the crude judge-baiting regularly engaged in by Bettino Craxi and Silvio Berlusconi, two felons amongst his predecessors as prime minister, but now the mask seems to have slipped.

2. La Repubblica March 3 2017.

3. “Ha rottomato il babbo.”

4. This term came into favour during the Tangentopoli scandals of 1992-93. It should be noted that many of its proponents in Italian parliaments have no such deep concern about the civil liberties of ordinary citizens - as opposed to any of their own colleagues who might be under investigation.

5. The no-confidence motion was also supported by the soft-left Sinistra Italiana (a grouping largely made up of the hard-line remnants of the now dissolved Sinistra Ecologia Libertà), which is anxious to appear more oppositional than the MDP.

6. La Repubblica March 16 2017.

7. La Repubblica (March 16 2017).

8. However, Tiziano Renzi’s alleged connection has only surfaced very recently.

9. The term ‘La casta’ was originally invented by two rightwing journalists associated with Corriere della Sera, in a best-seller with that title published about a decade ago, but it has become the standard M5S description of the political class.

10. This Ipsos poll, carried out between March 13 and 16, appeared in Corriere della Sera on March 21 2017.