Last updated: November 1, 2012 10:56 pm

Monti turns to fight against corruption

Protesters in southern Italy demonstrate against the 'Ndrangheta criminal network©ROPI

Protesters demonstrate against the 'Ndrangheta criminal network in southern Italy

Item on the prosecution’s list of evidence – one severed goat’s head with tongue protruding.

This calling card was left by three suspected mafia thugs arrested last week in a tangled case involving extortion of a local businessman and the award of public contracts worth €2.7m.

“Rather like the Godfather movie,” said an investigator with Italy’s finance police, which is dealing with the probe in the northern town of Serramazzoni. The town’s council was dissolved by the central government in August and Luigi Ralenti, its former mayor, is one of 12 people under investigation.

The case, small in a country that Mario Monti’s government admits is riddled with corruption, provides further proof of how the ’Ndrangheta criminal network is spreading its tentacles from its roots in southern Italy to the industrial heartland of the north, penetrating the organs of power.

Only last month the entire ruling council in Lombardy – Italy’s richest region that includes Milan – was forced to resign.Its official for public housing was arrested on charges of paying the ’Ndrangheta to buy the votes that elected him in exchange for favours, including public contracts. The fall of Lombardy – whose centre-right governor is being separately investigated for suspected corruption in the health sector – followed that of Lazio, the region that embraces Rome, where local officials are being probed for alleged embezzling of public funds.

Defending its anti-corruption legislation that was finally approved by parliament this week after months of wrangling, the government declared that corruption across Italy was “rocketing”.

It noted that “perceived corruption” in Italy had progressively worsened in recent years and that it had slid to 69th – equal with Ghana and Macedonia – in rankings drawn up by Transparency International, a Berlin-based NGO.

Each position lost in those rankings “triggers a 16 per cent loss of foreign investments”, the government said. It also cited a Council of Europe report which declared that corruption in Italy was “a pervasive and systemic phenomenon”. Italy’s own Court of Accounts, which audits public finances, estimates that corruption siphons off some €60bn a year.

Mr Monti’s attempted clean-up demonstrates how far his technocrat government has gone beyond its immediate task of saving Italy from meltdown on debt markets a year ago. It is also a response to a growing wave of revulsion at corrupt officials and politicians ahead of general elections early next year that could result in the biggest shake-up of Italy’s mainstream parties since corruption scandals two decades ago brought down the post-war establishment.

The anti-corruption law, which focuses on the public sector, has been widely criticised in the media for being too weak in its punitive aspects, although definitions of corruption have been broadened and some jail sentences increased. The government, backed by the OECD which helped draft the legislation, responds that this is to miss the point – the emphasis is on strengthening internal controls to prevent corruption from happening in the first place.

Main elements include establishing an independent national authority with investigative powers to combat public sector corruption, increased protection of whistle-blowers, and more transparency at local levels in tenders and spending on public projects. Paola Severino, justice minister, has promised further measures on money-laundering, false accounting, longer statutes of limitation, and politicians being barred from seeking re-election if already convicted of criminal offences.

But, given the increasingly frenzied atmosphere in parliament as elections approach, co-operation among the parties purporting to support Mr Monti remains in doubt.

Silvio Berlusconi, former prime minister, is already menacing the government following his conviction for tax fraud by a Milan court last week.

Transparency International, highly critical of past governments in Italy, has endorsed Mr Monti’s first step. “The new bill has some, if not all, of the elements required to overcome the rampant cronyism and influence peddling in Italian politics . . . Italy badly needs a strong legal framework to fight corruption. This law is a good start,” it said.

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