Calls for zero tolerance on corruption go unheard


ROME LETTER/Paddy Agnew: Ten years ago this month, Luca Magni had an appointment with history. On a February morning in 1992, Magni, owner of a small industrial cleaning firm, went to meet Mario Chiesa, minor Socialist politician and President of the Pio Albergo Trivulzio Hospice in Milan.

Magni went alone but not unaided since he was wired with a tiny microphone in his ball-point pen as well as a High 8 camera concealed in his black briefcase, both supplied by investigating magistrate, Antonio Di Pietro.

During the meeting in Chiesa's ornate office in what is one of Milan's most respected retirement homes, Magni handed over a bribe of seven million lire (€3,165), wrapped up in a wadge of 100,000 lire bills, some of which, unknown to Chiesa, had been marked. This was his 10 per cent payment in return for landing the cleaning contract at the Pio Albergo Trivulzio.

As soon as the meeting was over, the police swooped. When the porter at the front gate alerted Chiesa to the arrival of the police, he rushed to the his bathroom where he was caught, in flagrante, trying to flush 100,000 lire bills down the loo.

Chiesa's arrest was the opening scene in the tragi-comedy, Tangentopoli (Bribesville), the ongoing corruption investigation that sank not only Italy's major post-war governing parties but also some of their senior leaders, including Chiesa's own Milanese reference point, the late disgraced Socialist prime minister, Bettino Craxi.

Ten years on, Tangentopoli will not lie down. Last Saturday, an estimated 40,000 people gathered in Milan for a commemorative meeting that was more than just a nostalgic walk down memory lane. Many of those who gathered in Milan were disillusioned centre-left voters, angrily asking themselves and their centre-left leaders what had happened to Italy's so-called "gentle revolution"?

Ten years on, Italy is ruled by Silvio Berlusconi, a man who himself not only came within the orbit of the Tangentopoli investigations - he currently features in at least two corruption trials - but who was also a close friend and political ally of Bettino Craxi.

Is Berlusconi's rise to power merely proof of the theory outlined by 19th-century scholar Carlo Cattaneo whereby the history of Italy is characterised by short revolutions followed by long periods of reaction? Ten years ago, Italy was caught up in the throes of a political, institutional and socio-economic crisis, prompted not only by Tangentopoli but also by the Mafia killings of investigators Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino and by the end of a whole Cold War era of Christian Democrat and Socialist dominated politics.

Outside influences, such as pressure on the lira - it was devalued in September 1992 - and pressure from senior European partners over Maastricht convergency criteria did not help either.

Leading the charge towards a brave new world were the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) investigators in Milan. When the long wave of that charge finally put the centre-left (dominated by the old Communist Party, now Democratic Left) into power in 1996, centre-left electors expected some difficult questions to be addressed. These issues included the fight against corruption, relations between the Mafia and political classes, the role of the judiciary and the reform of the public administration, to name the most obvious.

To their surprise, centre-left voters soon discovered their leaders had little stomach for such fights, even when in government. Issues like the Mafia and the public administration slipped out of public view while, worst of all, it soon became apparent that the centre-left, in particular DS leader Massimo D'Alema, had no intention of giving wholehearted support to magistrates in their fight against corruption.

Currently, those centre-left leaders, above all Mr D'Alema, are at the centre of angry questioning by their supporters, questioning that has manifested itself in a series of semi-spontaneous meetings in Florence, Rome, Milan and other cities.

Not surprisingly, the warmest ovation on Saturday was reserved for ex-policeman and magistrate Di Pietro, who, notwithstanding his quixotic political career of the last decade, is still seen as the clean-faced symbol of Tangentopoli. Di Pietro and the other centre-left leaders may also have noticed the banners waved by some of those at the rally: "Corruption: Zero Tolerance".

The message has been delivered but is anybody listening?