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Italian senator heads to prison amid mafia allegations

March 3, 2010

by Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: March 3 2010

With calls of disgrace resounding through the Senate chamber, Nicola Di Girolamo of Italy’s ruling People of Liberty party prepared on Wednesday to report to prison to face accusations of alleged links with the mafia as part of a wider investigation into suspected fraud and money laundering involving two big telecoms companies.

After a heated debate, senators voted 259 to 16 in a secret ballot to accept Mr Di Girolamo’s resignation, thereby lifting his immunity from arrest.

The demise of the senator caps a damaging period for Silvio Berlusconi, centre-right prime minister, ahead of key regional elections later this month. Opinion polls show the confidence of Italians in the country’s institutions has plunged to new lows.

Senior allies of the prime minister are embroiled in a separate investigation by prosecutors into the alleged exchange of state construction contracts for money and sexual favours, while the party risks not being able to run in two important regions – Lazio and Lombardy – because of bureaucratic bungling over the registration of its candidates.

The Milan appeals court late Wednesday rejected the efforts of Mr Berlusconi’s party to register Roberto Formigoni, current governor of the northern region of Lombardy, and his list of candidates for the March 28-29 elections. The list had been rejected by electoral authorties for lacking sufficient signatures of endorsement.

With commentators on the left and right accusing the party of being responsible for an “electoral farce”, the People of Liberty said it would make a final appeal to a higher court. The issue is raising tensions between the government and the courts following an outburst by Mr Berlusconi who, responding to two trials where he is a defendant on charges of fraud and bribery, this week compared certain judges with Afghanistan’s Taliban.

Mr Di Girolamo was elected in the 2008 general elections as representative of overseas Italians in a Eurasia constituency stretching from Ireland to Siberia.

Prosecutors allege his Brussels residency papers were faked – the address did not exist – and that he was bankrolled by Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia which allegedly supplied fake ballot papers.

Gennaro Mokbel, a businessman who was arrested last week, is accused of masterminding his election campaign and of being involved in a network of bogus companies that were allegedly part of a €2bn money laundering and tax evasion scam linked to broadband operators Fastweb and Sparkle, a unit of Telecom Italia.

Investigators have told the Financial Times that Fastweb and Sparkle are not suspected of having ties with the mafia

Mr Di Girolamo delivered a sombre farewell speech in the Senate chamber, declaring his innocence and willingness to clear his name. Senators from the majority applauded him.

“I did not bring into this chamber the worthlessness of the mafia and the ‘Ndrangheta,” he said. He thanked his supporters in the Senate but said he would not mention their names in order to protect them, given his depiction as “Lucifer and a plague-spreader”.

Referring to photographs published widely in the media showing him cutting a birthday cake with an alleged mafia boss, the senator said some 250 pictures had been taken of him in front of the cake with various people and that the alleged mafioso had been introduced to him as the owner of a restaurant.

Opposition senators accused the ruling party of a cover-up, noting that in January 2009 a group of senators led by Sergio De Gregorio had taken off the agenda a move by the electoral committee to dismiss Mr Di Girolamo because of doubts over the validity of his foreign residency.

Silvio Scaglia, billionaire founder of Fastweb who was on the list of 56 arrest warrants issued last week, denied from prison on Tuesday knowing the senator or Mr Mokbel. Both Fastweb and Sparkle have denied the allegations of tax fraud and money laundering and are fighting in court to prevent their companies being taken into administration.

An opinion poll this week showed that only 28 per cent of Italians trusted parliament, down from 39 per cent in December, while 12 per cent believed in their political parties, a fall of six points. Trust in Confindustria, the main business lobby, fell to 34 per cent.

Renato Mannheimer, head of the Ispo polling agency, said “a marked atmosphere of distrust and disillusionment” was pervading Italy because of the uninterrupted sequence of scandals. But he noted that the centre-left opposition was suffering as well as the government.

Mr Berlusconi has responded by backing two close allies involved in the investigation into state tenders, while drafting legislation that would tighten up tender procedures. His party has also launched appeals in the courts to allow its candidates to stand in Lazio and Lombardy.

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