February 17, 2012 10:45 pm

Italy seizes $6tn of ‘fictitious’ US Treasury bills

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Italian anti-Mafia prosecutors have seized about $6tn of forged US Treasury bills in Switzerland – enough to fix the entire eurozone sovereign debt crisis but possibly part of a racket aimed at acquiring plutonium.

Prosecutors in the southern city of Potenza said eight Italians had been arrested across the country under Operation Vulcanico.

The fake bills, carrying the date 1934, had been examined by US officials and were found in three wooden chests which each contained a forged copy of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles sealed in lead cylinders.

The elaborately made chests – with bronze inscriptions reading “Chicago” and “Federal Reserve System” – were believed to have been shipped in 2007 from Hong Kong to Zurich. Swiss authorities, acting on the request of the Italian police, seized them in a safety deposit held by an unnamed Swiss trust company last month.

The US embassy in Rome congratulated the Italian law enforcement authorities and said the financial instruments – which it described as “fictitious” rather than “fake” given that no such bonds had existed – were allegedly part of a scheme to defraud Swiss banks. The embassy confirmed that US experts had helped identify the bonds as fictitious.

Hauls of fake US notes and Treasury bills are not uncommon. In 2009 Italian police seized $742bn of forged US bearer bonds in Chiasso near the Swiss border. But state prosecutor Giovanni Colangelo said his operation had set a record and involved an international network.

Prosecutors said telephone intercepts led them to suspect that the gang had been interested in obtaining plutonium from several Nigerians, but that a deal had not gone ahead.

The bizarre dating of the bonds to 1934 and the fake treaty copies led them to suspect the counterfeiting ring were intending to pass them off as funds issued in the wake of the first world war.

One of the eight men arrested was named as Rocco Menzella, former mayor of the small town of Montescaglioso in the southern region of Basilicata. According to reports at the time, he was the intended victim of a Mafia hit-squad in 1992.

Another suspect, a Sicilian living in Potenza, was said to have been “known for money laundering and exporting currency abroad”.

Italian investigators said the operation also led to the seizure of $500m of fake US Treasury bills in Rome in September 2010.

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