The man at the heart of Milan's meltdown


The key player in Lombardy’s corruption scandal is its former president Roberto Formigoni, forced to dissolve his government this week, who has ties to Italian lay Catholic group Comunione e Liberazione

‘DID YOU see how that piss pot Zambetti paid up? We had him terrified. He even started crying, right there in front of me and Pino.”

This an extract from a tapped telephone conversation between Eugenio Costantino and Vincenzo Evolo, two alleged Mafiosi. The “Zambetti” in question is the Lombardy regional councillor Domenico Zambetti, who was arrested last week on charges of Mafia collusion. Milan investigators believe Zambetti not only paid €200,000 to the ’Ndrangheta, oe Calabrian Mafia, in return for a “packet” of 4,000 votes but that for more than 20 years he has been the ’Ndrangheta’s man at the heart of Milanese politics.

Zambetti’s arrest did not so much set alarm bells ringing about Milanese politics – they have been sounding loud and clear for the past two years – as mark a Rubicon crossing. Zambetti became the 14th member in the 85-strong regional parliament to be arrested or investigated in recent times, many of them on Mafia-related charges. It was simply too much for Italy’s hard-working business capital, which has always seen itself as a business environment that was, if not removed from the daily corruption of Italian life, at least “Mafia-free”.

It was one of Lombardy’s most distinguished sons, the novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco, who summed up the city and the region’s sense of dismay, pointing the finger at another of the region’s famous sons, the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi: “And yet the idea of Milan as a source of innovation had persuaded many respectable people that even Berlusconi’s entry into politics was an attempt to introduce the healthy world of business into a political arena that was still hurting from the Tangentopoli [“bribesville”] scandal.

“That illusion did not last long but it was a tribute to the myth whereby Milan represented a healthy bulwark against the corrupt capital, Rome, which was infecting the entire nation. Very quickly even the most naive realised that a political force based on a conflict of interests and therefore based on the defence of private interests could only instigate further corruption. At the same time, the cynics soon realised that a new ‘gravy train’ Italy was opening up in front of them.”

Two years ago, when the Mafia expert Roberto Saviano suggested on state television that the ’Ndrangheta was entrenched and doing daily dirty business in Lombardy, he was bombarded with criticism. In particular, Saviano, the author of the bestseller Gomorrah, argued that the Federalist Northern League had become the major interlocutor for the ’Ndrangheta in Milan and Lombardy.

That claim outraged senior league figures, such as the then interior minister Roberto Maroni, who demanded (and obtained) a right of reply to Saviano on the same programme two weeks later. How could Saviano suggest Italy’s richest and most dynamic region, which alone counts for about 20 per cent of Italian GDP, was Mafia-infested? Answer: he could, he did, and he was right.

Arguably, the key player in the Lombardy/ Milan meltdown is the former regional president Roberto Formigoni, who was forced to dissolve his government this week after 17 years at its helm. Formigoni, a longtime Berlusconi ally, is also a prominent member of Italy’s influential Catholic lay movement Comunione e Liberazione. (The former president Mary McAleese and the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, spoke at the movement’s high-profile annual summer meeting in Rimini two years ago.)

Formigoni is also the man who had Nicole Minetti, the 27-year-old former dental hygienist accused of organising the “ladies” for Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga nights, elected on his list two years ago.

Formigoni is now under investigation in the context of a private-healthcare scandal in Lombardy, involving his friendship with Pierangelo Daccò, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his role in the bankruptcy of Milan’s San Raffaele hospital. Daccò was a major operator in the field of private healthcare who appeared to bestow a great deal of largesse on the regional president.

For example, investigators believe that for three years in a row Daccò offered Formigoni a Caribbean holiday, staying at the €45,000-a-week Altamer resort, a place popular with Hollywood stars such as Denzel Washington and Brad Pitt. Furthermore, investigators believe Daccò did a series of favours for Formigoni, including the organisation of promotional dinners during the Comunione e Liberazione’s Rimini meeting week, the low-price sale of a Sardinian villa to a friend in the movement, and the purchase of a Milan-Paris return flight, in 2008, costing €8,000.

Formigoni rejects the accusations, saying that he paid for his own holidays and that his friendship with Daccò had no bearing whatsoever in the awarding of regional healthcare contracts. That may be the case, but one question remains. Formigoni has always admitted to being a Memores Domini, a committed member of Comunione e Liberazione who has taken vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. But what sort of poverty is an upmarket Caribbean New Year holiday, especially if, as Formigoni claims, he was paying for it himself?

Formigoni’s judicial problems are far from over. It was confirmed this week that Milan magistrates have opened an investigation into the region’s decision to award a contract for an asbestos recycling plant to companies that form part of the Compagnia delle Opere, the economic arm of Comunione e Liberazione. In particular, investigators want to know if Formigoni “abused” his office to steer this contract through.

And, especially considering that Domenico Zambetti was the housing minister in his regional government, Catholics might also want to know if Formigoni represents an ideal role model for the committed Catholic in political life.

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