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'Bribesville' legacy seeps into current Italian politics

Outgoing premier fears the 1990s scandals are back

15 February, 19:23
'Bribesville' legacy seeps into current Italian politics (ANSA) - Rome, February 15 - Outgoing Premier Mario Monti and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi came to loggerheads on Friday after Monti, leader of a reformist platform in upcoming elections, claimed 'parallels' with the 'Bribesville' scandals of the early 1990s.

His comments came after the ex-premier caused a political stir by saying companies budgeted for bribes as a standard practice to land international contracts following the arrest of aerospace and defence giant Finmeccanica CEO Giuseppe Orsi on suspicion of international corruption over the sale of helicopters to India.

"Unfortunately (there are parallels), but with less hope," Monti told public broadcaster Rai3.

"In 1993 the action of the judiciary was liberating, and it was thought that this, combined with citizens' conscience, would put an end to the phenomenon," he continued in reference to the corruption scandals that took down the political establishment that had ruled Italy since the Second World War.

"Judicial action has continued but the conscience of those Italians who lead other Italians has grown complacent". Monti also recalled how his government had struggled to pass adequate anti-corruption measures due to "resistance" from Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party. Berlusconi categorically ruled out the claims of a new Bribesville, adding that Monti was "desperate" in view of a possible poor performance by his centrist formation in elections on February 24 and 25.

"This leads to desperation in their ranks and to senseless and inelegant statements," he concluded. Berlusconi is leading the centre-right election campaign against the centre left led by Pier Luigi Bersani of the Democratic Party (PD), the frontrunner before a pre-election blackout of opinion surveys kicked in last week. The two main coalitions are followed by the populist and anti-establishment Five Star Movement of Genoa comedian Beppe Grillo and then Monti's grouping.

Meanwhile, India on Friday started action to cancel a helicopter contract with the AgustaWestland unit of Italian defence giant Finmeccanica amid a bribery probe, the Indian defence ministry said.

"The Indian defence ministry has started action to cancel the contract to supply 12 AW-101 helicopters from AugustaWestland," a statement said.

Finmeccanica's ex-CEO Giuseppe Orsi on Friday stepped down from his post as president and member of the board of directors following his arrest Tuesday on suspicion of international corruption and tax fraud. Orsi announced his decision in a letter presented to a preliminary investigations judge during questioning at Busto Arsizio prison near the northern city of Varese, citing the desire to "help brighten the climate created around the company" as a result of the investigations. However, he continued to deny any wrongdoing and said his actions "had always been motivated by the exclusive interest of Finmeccanica and all its subsidiaries". Orsi told the judge he had no knowledge of illegal manoeuvres concerning the 12-helicopter deal.

Nor did he know the Indian Tyagi family, he said, members of which prosecutors say received bribes paid by Finmeccanica to secure the contract.

However, on Thursday India froze payment on the helicopters, two of which have been delivered and one is on the way, pending the results of the corruption probe. The defence ministry said it had asked Finmeccanica's new CEO, Alessandro Pansa, for any information he might be able to provide on suspected bribes.

Finmeccanica is Italy's biggest defence contractor and a major world player, employing some 70,000 people.

Berlusconi, who was premier when the deal went through in 2010, said on Thursday that bribes to secure contracts "in the third world and with some regimes" were budgeted and accused Finmeccanica's critics of "facile moralism".

On Friday the ex-premier denied he used the word "bribes" and said corruption should be prosecuted.

"I never used the word bribes," Berlusconi said a day after his reported comments on deal sweeteners sparked a firestorm of criticism amid a probe into alleged corruption in an Indian 12-helicopter contract with Italian defence giant Finmeccanica.

Bribes "are a crime and must be avoided," he said, while reiterating that the competitors of Finmeccanica and fuels group Eni were "rubbing their hands with glee" because of Italian prosecutors' probes into alleged kickbacks.

The ex-premier has contended that prosecutors are "killing" Italian business with their probes.

The row between the outgoing and former premiers continued on Friday with Monti claiming Italy had fallen into "ridicule" under Berlusconi and citing his predecessor's failure to pass an anti-corruption law.

Monti also called Berlusconi a "buffoon" for claiming he had left Italy in good financial order when he was forced to stand down in favour of the former European commissioner at the height of the euro crisis in November 2011.

Meanwhile, the chief executive officer of Italian energy giant Eni, Paolo Scaroni, on Friday denied any involvement in yet another bribery scandal related to energy contracts in Algeria.

Earlier this month, Scaroni was placed under investigation for suspected international corruption as part of a probe into the Algerian contracts of an Eni subsidiary.

"Neither Eni nor I have any involvement in the practices under investigation," Scaroni said during a conference call to discuss the company's 2012 earnings.

And he insisted it is possible to do business "anywhere in the world" without paying bribes.

Further, if Eni found a regime where bribes were essential, the company would not do business there, said Scaroni.

"Our reputation has always been a major driver of our growth," he added.

"The value this creates for Eni has made it one of the largest companies in our industry". His comments stand in contrast with remarks made Thursday by ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi.

Investigators are looking into an alleged 200-million-euro backhander given in exchange for contracts for Eni subsidiary Saipem, Europe's largest oil contractor by market value.

Judicial sources claim Scaroni met with an intermediary for a Hong Kong company charged with collecting the bribes on behalf of Algerian officials.

Earlier in the day, Eni posted a net profit of 7.79 billion euros for the full year 2012, a 13.5% increase over the previous year.

Net profit in the final quarter stood at 1.46 billion euros.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said Friday that he is concerned by the possibility that companies are offering bribes to compete for international contracts.

But he added everyone must wait for the outcome of judicial investigations into the claims.

"All this worries me but I know nothing, I am waiting for the outcome of the investigation", Napolitano told journalists.

The judiciary must determine whether "behind these international transactions there is something in the form of hidden reserves or kickbacks".

Photo: Former Clean Hands magistrate Antonio Di Pietro