The Weaponization of Anticorruption Law: Why Italy’s Legge Severino Must Be Reformed

Back in 2012, the Italian legislature passed an anticorruption statute known as the Legge Severino. This law institutes a six year prohibition on holding elected office for politicians with felony convictions carrying sentences over two years. If convicted on an “abuse of power” charge, the prohibition on officeholding is extended to eight years. The law, which was enacted in part to effectuate Article Six of the United Nation’s Convention Against Corruption, was hailed at the time as a positive step on the road to a less corrupt Italy. (Famously, this provision initially barred Silvio Berlusconi from office after he was sentenced to four years in prison for tax evasion.) The logic behind passing laws of this sort (which also exist elsewhere) is fairly clear, especially in a country like Italy which has struggled with endemic political corruption: intuitively, those who have abused the public trust by committing serious criminal offenses should not be allowed to hold elected office.

But a recent case in Calabria, involving Domenico “Mimmo” Lucano, the former mayor of the town of Riace, highlights problems with the law—in particular, how the law can be weaponized to take down politicians who are fighting corruption and organized crime.

Lucano’s story is long, complicated, and colorful, but the most essential facts are these: From his first election as mayor of Riace back in 2004, Lucano took an aggressive stand against the influence of organized crime on local government. (Indeed, the local crime syndicate viewed him as enough of a threat that they attempted to assassinate him and killed his dogs.) When Europe’s refugee crisis hit in the 2010s, Lucano leveraged the economic opportunity to stimulate the economy and, in the process, to distance his town from the yoke of organized crime. Lucano resettled hundreds of refugees, who previously were housed on the outskirts of the city or in massive refugee camps, into the historic (and depopulated) center of Riace. He then used the money earmarked for refugee assistance from the EU and the Italian central government to renovate this downtown area, providing a boost to the local economy. This model of refugee integration garnered national and international attention (here, here, here), and hundreds of other towns across Italy adopted the “Riace Model”: resettling refugees in the central city, and using the influx of people and Euros to stimulate the local economy.

The biggest losers from Lucano’s unorthodox strategy were organized crime groups, which take advantage of poor economic conditions in cities like Riace to recruit and retain members. Lucano’s approach also aroused the ire of Italy’s more xenophobic elements. When the Five Star Movement and Northern League formed their anti-immigration coalition in 2018, Italian national prosecutors went after Lucano, levying a series of charges that he had aided illegal immigration and keeping him in court for years. After two trials ended in acquittals, this past September he was convicted on a new set of charges and sentenced to thirteen years in prison. He can appeal his conviction and sentence, but due to the operation of the Legge Severino, he cannot run for public office for another eight years—and as a result, his name was removed from the ballot for local parliamentary elections just four days before those elections took place.

In this case, the Legge Severino, intended as an anticorruption measure, ended up disqualifying one of Italy’s most prominent anticorruption politicians in one of Italy’s most corrupt regions. This incident is not just an unfortunate anomaly. Rather, this example highlights broader problems with how the Legge Severino currently operates. Most importantly, because disqualification under the law is triggered after the initial conviction—even when appeals are still pending—the law puts too much power in the hands of trial judges to bar candidates from standing for election. And that’s a problem because of the Italian judiciary’s corruption and bias—especially its susceptibility to political pressure from politicians and coercion by organized crime. Lucano’s case thus demonstrates a more general problem with the Legge Severino, and suggests at least three ways that this law should be reformed:

  • First, and most straightforwardly, the bar on holding public office should be triggered only after all appeals have been exhausted and the conviction is final. So long as a trial court conviction can trigger disqualification from holding office, the Legge Severino can be deployed strategically to purge the likes of Lucano from elections with convictions that will likely be overturned (See: Lucano’s two acquittals in the past three years). Preventing the disqualification from taking effect until after appellate review of the original conviction would avoid a situation in which a single trial judge can disqualify a politician right before an election.
  • Second, and more ambitiously, Italy should consider establishing a centralized special appellate court for reviewing convictions that could result in disqualification from public office. This is especially important in regions such as Calabria where judicial corruption is common even at the appellate level. If creating a standalone central appellate court for such cases proves too ambitious, Italy can institute a system in which central judges sit by designation in regional appellate courts hearing appeals from cases that might trigger the bar on public office.
  • Third, the Italian parliament should consider narrowing the set of criminal offenses that can trigger the ban on holding public office. Currently, the ban is triggered by any felony conviction with a sentence of at least two years. This makes it easier for corrupt or biased prosecutors and judges to concoct a pretext for barring a disfavored politician from standing for election. Narrowing the set of disqualifying felonies—say, to those related to abuse of public trust or serious violent crime—would make pretextual deployment of the law more difficult.

Some anticorruption activists might balk at the idea of curtailing the Legge Severino. After all, that law has been effectively deployed against some of Italy’s most notorious corrupt figures—including, as noted above, Silvio Berlusconi. But anticorruption is not black-and-white, especially in Italy. What happened to Lucano is a warning for Italian activists who want to support and encourage daring antiestablishment politicians. These activists and their allies should move to reform the Legge Severino before it’s too late.

4 thoughts on “The Weaponization of Anticorruption Law: Why Italy’s Legge Severino Must Be Reformed

  1. Great suggestions, Danny! This is a really thoughtful piece. I was particularly interested in the second recommendation you introduced, the specialized court for anticorruption issues. Do you think there are particular qualifications that judges should have in order to serve on that court? What’s your vision for selecting decisionmakers? I imagine that an anticorruption court would be a particularly enticing bribery target for corrupt politicians.

  2. Hi Mayze. Great question. I imagine that judges on an “anticorruption court” would include judges with long track records in the Italian judiciary that could be “held up to the light” and scrutinized by the Italian Senate. Of course, there is no perfect way to ward off corruption among judges. But, judges already serving in the judiciary with impeccable track records are probably the best candidates for such a position.

  3. Thanks, Danny. You did a great job of capturing the consequences of the Legge Severino and left me convinced that it provides trial judges, especially those who are corrupt themselves, with far too much power. Your reforms seem sensible as well. I was surprised that the law bans politicians for non-corruption-related crimes. Corruption can take a variety of forms, which might make it hard to define disqualifying crimes, but I do wonder why the Italian parliament cast a net that was in some respects both too wide and too narrow. That’s to say, I imagine some corruption-related crimes carry less than 2 years imprisonment while many other crimes not related to corruption fall within the law’s scope. Do you have any sense of the logic behind this?

  4. Thanks, Danny. This is a fascinating post.

    In Brazil, a similar law was enacted in 2010, the Clean Record Act (in Portuguese “Lei da Ficha Limpa” https://www.as-coa.org/articles/explainer-brazils-clean-record-law). The law forbids that politicians run for office after a criminal conviction by a second instance court. In Brazil, the law had a positive effect because it removed from the political game many corrupt politicians. In the particular case of Brazil, due to legislation on criminal procedure and the way the Judiciary branch works, a final and unappealable conviction for a white-collar crime can take more than 15 years (https://mppr.mp.br/pagina-6193.html). In the case of Italy, the Judiciary system does not have the same problems as Brazil.

    Do you believe that the Legge Severino can be politically used to remove adversaries from the ballots? Do you know if the Italians are envisioning any modification in the law to prevent this kind of situation?

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