September 14, 2010 7:31 pm

Anti-mafia police make largest asset seizure

Italian anti-mafia police have made their largest seizure of assets as part of an investigation into windfarm contracts in Sicily. Officers confiscated property and accounts valued at €1.5bn belonging to a businessman suspected of having links with the mafia.

Roberto Maroni, interior minister, on Tuesday accused the businessman – identified by police as Vito Nicastri and known as the island’s “lord of the winds” – of being close to a fugitive mafia boss, Matteo Messina Denaro.

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General Antonio Mirone, of the anti-mafia police, said the seized assets included 43 companies – some with foreign participation and mostly in the solar and windpower sector – as well as about 100 plots of land, villas and warehouses, luxury cars and a catamaran. More than 60 bank accounts were frozen.

Until his arrest last November, Mr Nicastri, based in the inland hill town of Alcamo, was Sicily’s largest developer of windfarms, arranging purchases of land, financing and official permits. Some projects were sold through intermediaries to foreign renewable energy companies attracted to Italy by generous subsidy schemes.

In an interview with the Financial Times at his head office in Alcamo last year, Mr Nicastri denied any wrongdoing and welcomed police probes. “It is like going to the hospital and having check-ups and you come out without doubts about your health,” he said.

Police confirmed that Mr Nicastri, 54, had been released after his arrest on suspicion of fraud last year and had not been ­re-arrested. Italy’s tough anti-mafia laws give authorities powers unparalleled in Europe to seize assets as a precautionary measure.

The police statement said Mr Nicastri was suspected of being close to mafia gangsters, and that investigations had revealed that Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta had infiltrated Sicily’s renewable energy sector.

Mr Nicastri was not immediately available for comment but a colleague in his Alcamo office called the seizures an “injustice”.

The renewable energy sector is under scrutiny across much of southern Italy. Some windfarms, built with official subsidies, have never functioned.

A separate probe in Sardinia has involved political allies of Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister. They have denied bribing officials to win tenders.

Mr Berlusconi’s government is proud of its record of cracking down on the mafia, seizing more than €10bn in assets and arresting more than 5,800 suspects since taking office in May 2008.

While commending Mr Maroni’s tenure, critics, including prominent anti-mafia magistrates, have attacked legislation seen to favour the mafia, such as last year’s tax amnesty and proposed restrictions on police use of wiretapping.

Mr Nicastri sold most of his windfarm projects to IVPC, a company near Naples run by Oreste Vigorito, also president of Italy’s windpower association. Mr Vigorito was also arrested last November on suspicion of fraud and later released. He denied wrongdoing.

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