Municipal Dissolution as a Means of Combatting Criminal Corruption

In December of 2019, the Italian government dissolved the municipal government of the Calabrian town of Africo, replacing it with a national governmentk commission that would run the city for the next 12 to 24 months. This drastic action, decried by (former) Africo city councilor Nicola Paris as “interrupting democracy,” was authorized by a special Italian law, adopted in 1991, that permits the national government to dissolve a local government if that local government has been infiltrated by the mafia. Since 1991, 341 such dissolution decrees have been issued (though 21 were cancelled by administrative courts), with 22 issued in 2019-2020 alone. Sixty-six communities have seen their local government dissolved more than once. (Africo’s city council, for example, has now been dissolved three times.) And the practice is spreading geographically. Between 1991 and 2011, the vast majority of city council dissolutions were in the three regions under the “traditional” sphere of mafia control (Campania, Calabria, and Sicily), with only three dissolutions outside of those regions. But since 2011, the Italian government has dissolved city councils in 21 municipalities outside of that traditional sphere.

The dissolution of city councils is a serious measure, and is strictly regulated. The process begins when concrete evidence emerges of links between town councilors and organized criminal elements that could bias political decision-making or affect public security. This evidence is submitted to the Prefecture, an administrative body responsible for implementing state functions at the local level. The Prefecture appoints a three-person Committee of Inquiry. After an investigation, which usually takes roughly 3-6 months, the Committee presents its findings to the Prefect, who presents them to the Minister of Interior within 45 days. The Minister of Interior, after deliberating with the Council of Ministers, then decides whether to issue a proposal of dissolution; a dissolution is only finalized when the President of the Republic issues a decree of resolution. The issuance of such a decree is judicially reviewable by the administrative courts (and, as noted above, 21 dissolution orders have been judicially nullified). When a municipal government is dissolved, the mayor, councilors, and members of the executive committee are removed from office, and a group of three individuals, known as the Extraordinary Commission, takes over all council activities for a period of up to two years. At the end of this time, new local elections are held.

Even with all of this process, dissolution of a local government is an extreme measure, but in Italy, where deeply-entrenched organized criminal groups are able to secure their control thorough corruption of local governments, such an extreme response is warranted. Indeed, other countries struggling with similar problems might consider adopting a similar mechanism. Continue reading

Is the Vatican Finally Getting Serious About Cleaning Up Its Finances? The Appointment of an Antimafia Magistrate Is A Promising Sign

Questions about Vatican finances have dogged the Church for decades. In 2012, leaked documents revealed allegations of extensive cronyism and money laundering; these documents suggested, for example, that the Church’s main charitable mission, Peter’s Pence, was being used to fund the lavish lifestyle of some members of the clergy. Though Pope Benedict XVI had attempted to institute financial auditing procedures, his efforts proved insufficient, and the scandal was widely seen as part of the reason for his controversial decision to resign the papacy. Unfortunately, the scandals have continued under Pope Francis. In 2015, the Church purchased a bankrupt Italian hospital in part with money borrowed illicitly from a publicly funded Italian hospital; the transaction, arranged off-the-books, was partly coordinated by a Swiss bank with a reputation for money laundering. In 2019, it was revealed that the Vatican had invested roughly $200 million, at least in part from Peter’s Pence, in luxury real estate in London. The purchase was partially financed through a since-discredited Swiss bank, and the loans were not properly recorded in the Vatican’s internal records. It was also revealed that the Vatican was investing millions of dollars through the Centurion Global Fund, which is connected to the same Swiss bank that ran the London purchase, as well as to a pair of banks that have been linked to a Venezuelan bribery and money-laundering scandal. While it is possible that some or all of these transactions may prove to have been the product of poor financial decision-making rather than corruption, these and other incidents have called into question the Church’s management of its finances as well as the integrity of its internal watchdog mechanisms

Pope Francis, who ascended to the papacy with promises of reform, has publicly acknowledged that there is corruption within Vatican finances and has pursued measures to restore confidence in the Church’s financial management. However, many of his attempts to institute more rigorous reforms have been frustrated by internal Vatican power struggles. For instance, in 2016 the powerful Archbishop Giovanni Becciu unilaterally stopped a scheduled audit of Vatican finances, and in 2017 the Vatican’s auditor-general was forced out of office, allegedly after finding evidence of financial irregularities. But in late 2019, Pope Francis stepped up his efforts to crack down on malfeasance and get the Vatican’s financial house in order. Francis took a particularly high-profile step in October 2019, when he appointed one of Italy’s leading antimafia magistrates, Giuseppe Pignatone (who retired from the Italian judiciary in May 2019), as head of the Vatican’s criminal tribunal, which is tasked with investigating corruption and fraud, among other crimes. Although some have portrayed Pignatone’s appointment as a sign of desperation by a Pope who cannot control his own bureaucracy, this choice was in fact a wise move by Francis to consolidate his reformist agenda. Pignatone’s former position as one of Italy’s most prestigious antimafia magistrates means that he is particularly well-placed to address Vatican corruption, for three reasons. Continue reading

Checking the Spread of Criminal Corruption Is Necessary to Protect Italian Democracy

Author’s Note: The following piece was originally drafted back in February, before the massive coronavirus outbreak in Italy. The post was supposed to have been published in early March, but I put it on hold, because I was unsure whether it would be appropriate to publish a piece on criminal corruption in Italy at a time when Italian society has been so devastated by this public health crisis. After considering the issue, I decided to post this piece, in part because it deals with issues that have plagued Italian society in the run-up to the coronavirus outbreak, and that could prove to have significant implications for the handling of coronavirus. In particular, criminal corruption has been linked to the development of inadequate infrastructure, which threatens to have serious consequences in the face of a major public health crisis. To be clear, I have not yet seen any evidence that corruption has played a major role in Italy’s handling of the coronoavirus epidemic. While such evidence might emerge in the future, neither this introductory note or the post that follows should be construed as arguing that corruption is responsible for Italy’s current situation. I encourage all readers of this blog to keep the people of Italy in their hearts as they continue to combat the threat of coronavirus.

Last December, in an operation called Rinascita-Scott, Italian police arrested over 300 suspected members and associates of the ‘Ndrangheta, a mafia-type network based out of the Calabria region. These arrests spanned twelve Italian regions, and were coordinated with arrests in Switzerland, Germany, and Bulgaria. Among the accused were a large number of corrupt public officials—demonstrating the depth of the ‘Ndrangheta’s ties to the Italian political world. For example, Gianluca Callipo, the mayor of the town of Pizzo Calabro and president of the Calabrian branch of the National Association of Italian Municipalities, is accused of leveraging his position to secure provisions favorable to the ‘Ndrangheta’s interests, or to prevent the adoption of measures harmful to those interests, in exchange for electoral support. Similarly, Nicola Adamo, the former regional assessor of Calabria, is under investigation for influence trafficking as a result of his involvement in diverting funds to ‘Ndrangheta affiliates in exchange for votes. And these are not isolated cases. Previous operations in 2019, in the provinces of Val d’Aosta and Emilia Romagna, led to the arrest of several ‘Ndrangheta-connected city counselors, including city council president Giuseppe Caruso, who is accused of using his position in the Customs Agency to fraudulently divert EU funds to members of the ‘Ndrangheta. These operations have demonstrated that the ‘Ndrangheta, which was long considered a somewhat localized Calabrian organization, has entrenched itself in Italian politics, not only penetrating municipal governments throughout Italy and across party lines, but even extending its influence to national politics.

The rise of the ‘Ndrangheta highlights mafias groups’ ongoing ability to corrupt politicians, as well as the importance of developing a national strategy to combat this corruption. The exchange of votes for money and influence trafficking distorts Italian democracy and jeopardizes the provision of public goods to which the Italian people are entitled; moreover, mafia-affiliated businesses that benefit from corrupt public procurement often produce subpar goods that put public safety at risk. And while the successes of Rinascita-Scott and other operations highlights the professionalism and effectiveness of Italy’s antimafia legal institutions—particularly the investigators and prosecutors who specialize in mafia cases—checking the spread of this group will require a multifaceted approach. Both the government entities responsible for regulating elections and the political parties themselves have an important role to play, and could to more to address this clear and present danger to Italian democracy. Continue reading

The Mafia Capitale Trials Show Italian Municipalities’ Continued Vulnerability to Corruption by Organized Criminal Groups

Over five years ago, in November of 2014, Rome’s mayor, Ignazio Marino, blew the whistle on a massive corruption scheme in the city’s administration. Marino had become particularly suspicious of Salvatore Buzzi, the leftwing leader of a cooperative that controlled, among other things, the city’s recycling, trash disposal, and street cleaning services. Buzzi had been imprisoned in the 1980s for homicide, but was supposedly a thoroughly reformed champion of progressive causes. In fact, he was the right-hand man of Massimo Carminati, a former member of a neofascist terrorist group. Using collusion, exchange of favors, extortion, and intimidation, Carminati and Buzzi diverted hundreds of millions of euros intended for the improvement of Rome’s infrastructure to private bank accounts. And if this wasn’t enough, the group even skimmed resources from housing projects designed to shelter refugees, with Buzzi famously caught on a telephone intercept saying “Do you have any idea how much I earn on these immigrants? They’re more profitable than drugs.”

In sum, these Roman criminal groups, which are popularly known as Mondo di Mezzo (the World Between) or Mafia Capitale (Capital Mafia), had thoroughly infiltrated Rome’s municipal government. Indeed, their connections reached the upper echelons of Roman government, including former mayor Gianni Alemanno, who was ultimately convicted of corruption and illicit funding. Buzzi and Carminati, along with more than 40 other individuals, were ultimately brought to trial over these crimes. Prosecutors under magistrate Giuseppe Pignatone pushed for this organization to be recognized as a mafia—which is important, because under Italian law, there is a special, and especially severe, set of criminal laws reserved for mafia members and mafia-type associations. This past October, however, the Italian Court of Cassation ruled that the Mondo di Mezzo did not qualify, legally, as a mafia-type association (associazione di tipo mafioso).

This ruling has been controversial, and indeed much of the attention that Mondo di Mezzo has received has been based on the “mafia” element of this case. But whether or not Mondo di Mezzo is a mafia, this case has revealed the Italian capital’s vulnerability to corruption by organized criminal networks. In the words of Pignatone, the mafia is not Rome’s first problem. Instead, the most serious issues “are the crimes against the public administration and the economy. It is corruption, auction disruptions, bankruptcies, multimillion-dollar frauds. Mafia Capitale is just a piece of a much larger and more complicated mosaic.” And Mondo di Mezzo demonstrates that Italy must take concrete action to reduce the vulnerability of municipal governments to infiltration by criminal groups. Continue reading

Italy’s Mafia Corruption Laws Are Causing More Confusion than Clarity

Italy has a long history with organized crime, and that history has had a fundamental impact on the country’s experience with corruption. Italy has three traditional mafia associations (the Camorra of Campania, the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria, and Sicily’s Cosa Nostra), along with a number of smaller groups. For decades, these groups have secured their power not only by exercising violence against local populations, but also by their ability to influence politicians. Historically, it has been common for politicians in mafia-dominated regions to engage directly with the criminal groups, for instance by exchanging lucrative public works contracts for vote mobilization (for example, see here and here).

In the 1980s and 1990s, following an explosion of mafia-related violence, the Italian government began to crack down on organized crime, and this crackdown included new measures that targeted the criminals’ political benefactors. In 1982, the parliament passed Article 416-bis c.p., which defined for the first time the crime of “mafia-type association” (associazione di tipo mafioso). With the passage of this law, anyone who was found to be a member of a mafia-type association could be punished with 10-15 years in prison. In order to be considered a mafia-type association, the group has to follow the mafia method—that is, the use of 1) the force of group intimidation; 2) subjugation; and 3) the code of silence (omertà)—to commit crimes. In recognition of the importance of political alliances for mafia crimes, the procurement of votes is explicitly mentioned in the law as a possible mafia activity. In 1992, the law was amended to more directly target mafiosi’s political allies by criminalizing a rather narrow set of corrupt relationships. In particular, the law specified that politicians who worked with mafia groups by exchanging vote procurement for money would be subject to 7-12 years imprisonment. This amendment (denoted 416-ter) was subsequently reformed in 2014 and again in May 2019, with the result that the culpable conduct for politicians was expanded to include the exchange of votes for money or other benefits. This change reflects the reality that politicians rarely give money directly to mafia contacts but are more likely to provide other benefits, such as securing government contracts or providing jobs.

However, this regime was deemed insufficient, as most government officials are not actually members of mafia groups, and there are many ways in which mafias may benefit officials that do not involve elections. For instance, one might imagine a magistrate who consistently provides favorable rulings for mafia defendants, or a police officer who provides information about ongoing investigations in exchange for money or other benefits. To address these gaps, Italian courts have developed the concept of concorso esterno (external participation). Concorso esterno is not a separate crime in the Italian criminal code, but rather a concept that courts have derived from the combination of Article 416-bis and Article 110 c.p., the provision that establishes that when more than one person is complicit in a crime, each is subject to the same punishment for that crime. Italian courts have reasoned that the conjunction of these two provisions implies that prosecutors may charge individuals who support mafia actors—including politicians and other government officials—almost as if they were mafiosi themselves, and those convicted may be subject to the harsh sentences that await convicted mafiosi.

The concorso esterno regime reduces the ability of corrupt officials to avoid prosecution, and empowers Italian law enforcement to target the political corruption that has undergirded mafia activity. Where the law is used effectively against high-level politicians, it may also help to combat the public perception that politicians who work with the mafia groups enjoy impunity. Moreover, by labeling politicians and other “non-mafia” criminal associates as functionally equivalent to mafiosi themselves, this approach sends a powerful symbolic message, one that is appropriate given the historic symbiosis between politicians and organized crime in Italy. Nevertheless, the concorso esterno theory, which has long been controversial in Italian legal scholarship (for example, see here and here), has some very real downsides.

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Italy’s Statute-of-Limitations Reforms: A Helpful But Incomplete Step Toward Ending Impunity

In 2015, a Naples court found former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi guilty of paying a senator €3 million to support Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and sentenced him to three years in prison for this crime. Berlusconi did not serve a day. Under Italian law, defendants are typically entitled to two appeals, which must be resolved before the defendants begin serving their sentences (with a handful of exceptions). Moreover, the statute of limitations clock keeps ticking while these appeals are in process. In Berlusconi’s case, the statute of limitations ran out before his case made its way through Italy’s glacial judicial system—where criminal trials can last an average of four to five years in the court of first instance alone, and the appeals can add an extra three years to the process. This was not the first time Berlusconi had benefitted from Italy’s slow judicial proceedings (see here and here). Nor was he the first politician to do so. In 2004, former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti famously escaped punishment for mafia association in part due to the statute of limitations.

Corrupt politicians and other white-collar criminals got off scot-free in these and other cases due to the combination of three factors noted above. The first is the extremely slow pace of Italian criminal proceedings. The second is the rule that defendants do not have to begin serving their prison terms until their appeals have been exhausted. And the third concerns the rule that the statute of limitations clock begins when a crime is committed and continues to run for the duration of a defendant’s investigation, trial, and appeal, with no option of suspension. The rationale for this approach to the statute of limitations has traditionally been that the prosecution should not be able to hold a defendant in legal limbo while the case wormed its way slowly through the courts. In practice, however, this system often served to guarantee impunity for corrupt politicians and other wealthy defendants who could afford the high-priced lawyers that would drag out the legal proceedings just long enough to ensure their clients could never be imprisoned.

Furthermore, under the traditional Italian system of calculating the statute of limitations, the clock starts ticking at the moment the crime is first committed, rather than from when the crime is completed. (These are generally the same time for simple crimes like homicide or robbery, but for complex white-collar schemes, such as a bid-rigging conspiracy, there may be a long gap between the moment the crime starts and the time when it ends.) This rule makes prosecuting corruption and other complex financial crimes even more difficult, because such crimes are hard to detect and the investigations often take considerable time. So, what seem to be technical rules of criminal procedure—rules that, in the abstract, might be defended as protecting private citizens from prosecutorial overreach—in practice helped to perpetuate the system of impunity for Italian officials and businesspeople that fuels Italy’s already extraordinarily high levels of perceived corruption.

But there are hopeful signs that Italy may finally be addressing these problems. In December 2018, the Italian Parliament adopted a new anticorruption law, popularly referred to as Spazzacorrotti (“Bribe Destroyer”). (For English-language analyses, see here and here.) That new law, which will be fully implemented in 2020, contains a number of important provisions, including increased penalties for corruption and incentives for voluntary self-disclosure and cooperation. Crucially, the new legislation also amends Italy’s statute of limitations law: Continue reading