The British may not be best at many things these days, but we are, sure ly, pre-eminent when it comes to sleaze and scandals in public life. Or are we? In 1994, our Continental neighbours gav e us a good run for our money
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The British may not be best at many things these days, but we are, surely, pre-eminent when it comes to sleaze and scandals in public life. Or are we? In 1994, our Continental neighbours gave us a good run for our money

AITKEN'S bill and Archer's share-dealing, Milligan's orange and Matrix Churchill's arms - Britain was noisy with scandals in 1994. Booming from newsreaders and screaming from headlines, their details blurred into one long press blare. The revelations were so relentless, so engrossing, often so hilariously British, that it was easy to forget, or not to notice, that the rest of Western Europe was enjoying and enduring the same process.

Politicians and businessmen have been pleading, resigning, even committing suicide, all over the foreign news pages. Even as the year ended, the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was being investigated - with disastrous consequences for his government - about whether he knew that two of his Fininvest companies had bribed tax police to give them an easy audit. His Spanish counterpart Felipe Gonzalez was being asked to explain how a firm linked to his brother came to equip the £75m prime ministerial bomb shelter. And the French public was wondering about the suicide of an aide of President Mitterrand, Pierre-Yves Guezou, who had been about to face questions on illegal phone-tapping from the Elysee palace.

Most commentators agree that recent years have seen an actual increase in the rake-offs and deceptions and liaisons that constitute political sleaze, and not just an increase in the reporting of it. Britain, France, Germany and Spain all have long-entrenched regimes, each with the arrogance and connections that tend to accompany apparently permanent power.

Meanwhile, winning elections has become more expensive: campaigns need television time, staged events and endless surveys of hard-to-convince voters. And politicians, converging on the same everything-has-its-price free-market consensus, are less fastidious about where their money comes from.

But the resurgence of sleaze also signals a larger change of heart among Western Europe's democracies - and not necessarily an undesirable one. With both the Cold War and the post-war consumer boom over, reasons for supporting the old political orders are getting harder to find. Voters everywhere don't like their politicians. Accordingly, this scepticism has led to a new strictness about what (not necessarily illegal) behaviour the public considers unethical - and calls sleaze - and to a greater determination to see this sleaze probed and eradicated. Thus Italians used to decades of palm-greasing took to the streets in July to prevent their government from letting corruption suspects out of jail.

At the same time, the chances of erring public figures being caught have risen. Everywhere, a recession-threatened press has been hungry for exclusives - hence the Yeo affair's quick triggering of reports into half a dozen other Tory MPs' moral consistency, and Paris-Match's recent decision to break decades of silence on President Mitterrand's double private life. People have become increasingly willing to talk to reporters: some recession-hit businessmen cried wolf simply because they couldn't afford to satisfy the politicians' escalating demands for bribes any more. And as corruption has grown into a matter of major public concern, a clutch of ambitious prosecutors like Thierry Jean-Pierre in France, Baltasar Garzon in Spain and Saverio Borelli in Italy has created an enhanced role for judges as guardians of political propriety.

These investigators have made the running so far, catching their suspects in the headlights of unexpected public scrutiny. But this year there have been signs of a counter-reaction: not from the public, whose appetite for exposure and recrimination seemsundiminished, but from the politicians, as increasingly important figures are being brought in for questioning. The French National Assembly recently considered a motion outlawing reports of magistrates' inquiries. In Italy, the justice minister has ordered an investigation into alleged abuses of power by the investigators themselves. Antonio Di Pietro, the most high-profile and popular prosecutor of all, has resigned, saying he feels "used and exploited by those who see some political end to my work".He was due to interrogate Berlusconi later this month.

Exposing corruption no longer seems the worthy, neutral task it was a year ago. The Guardian's minor "cod fax" misdemeanour led to criticisms by Conservative MPs and other newspapers - criticisms that moved the news spotlight entirely away from the politicians, and back on to the ethics of their investigators. In 1995 this sort of counter-attack may well become more common, diverting many a straightforward-looking inquiry into an ambiguous and politicised battle. Already, very few suspects are actually convicted and punished; as in fraud trials, juries often find the evidence confusing and inconclusive. Some allegations really do turn out to be groundless, and die quietly in dusty courtrooms; others just slip from the public gaze as the next wave breaks; only a handful stay on television for long.

All the more reason, then, to catch last year's biggest European scandals - political or with political implications - now, while they still have good guys and bad guys and the possibility of endings. Even if it's only to see that, in sleaze at least, weare like them.

is for agriculture, or the Common Agricultural Policy, the system of subsidy and price regulation by which European Union farmers get over half the EU budget. The subsidies are easy prey for the canny grower: tobacco exports from France, Greece and Italyget them, although half the crop is unusable, while a "meat carousel" carries cattle from Eastern Europe to be slaughtered in Italy, exported to Malta, brought back to Italy, and then sold outside Europe for a profit, their passage eased by subsidies all the way. One Hamburg ship unloaded its wheat cargo at the bow and reloaded at the stern - the fact that it touched German soil qualified it for subsidy. A farm fraud total of £6bn is often quoted, most recently by the European Court of Auditors. Often disputed as an overestimate, all those zeros bring a gleam to the Eurosceptic's eye.

is for Silvio Berlusconi, but also for Pierre Beregovoy, the late French PM seen as "Mr Clean" - until it turned out that he'd received a £100,000 interest-free loan for a flat from Roger-Patrice Pelat, a businessman accused of profiting from insider information picked up at a lunch at... Beregovoy's house. While the loan was legitimate, suggestions surfaced that he'd given Pelat (now dead) favours in return. Beregovoy denied it; the rumours grew; and, after losing the 1993 election, he shot hi mself. President Mitterrand, who also knew Pelat, blamed "dogs'' in the media, but the wave of government corruption allegations known as Les Affaires rolled on, bringing the resignations of Industry Minister Gerard Longuet, Communications Minister Alain Carignon and Co-operation Minister Michel Roussin. "France is on the road to Italianisation,'' said the country's chief investigating magistrate Thierry Jean-Pierre; which leads us to . . .

is for Bettino Craxi, Italy's prime minister in the 1980s, now avoiding jail sentences for corruption and fraudulent bankruptcy by hiding in a villa in Tunisia, claiming ill-health. Craxi was found guilty of taking a £4.6m bribe from the ailing Banco Ambrosiano to arrange a £32.5m loan from the state energy company ENI. Banco Ambrosiano went bankrupt anyway in 1982 in mysterious circumstances - none more so than the death of its head Roberto Calvi, found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge. The Cr axi administration's escalating demands for bribes are widely credited with making the Italian corruption system finally intolerable - revelations from a Milan contractor who wouldn't pay to clean the city's hospitals started the whole corruption investi gation two years ago. He says he's the victim of a conspiracy, and issues veiled threats to Italian news- papers that he'll spill the beans on everyone else.

is for DPV, the nickname by which Didier Pineau-Valencienne, boss of French electrical giant Schneider, is usually known. DPV went to Belgium in June 1994 to make a statement for an investigation into the takeover of two of his Belgian subsidiaries, and ended up spending 11 days in jail denying accusations about slush funds and money-laundering. An angry DPV was released uncharged, but his incarceration (see J) on inadequate evidence provoked a debate on the increasing vulnerability of businessmen to anti-corruption magistrates.

is for expenses. Temptation starts right in the office: in 1993 the Court of Auditors found 17,000 items of office equipment worth £5m missing from the European Parliament, while an investigation into false claims for computers and training courses uncovered fiddles costing £90m. Some scams go on quite openly: many MEPs fly almost weekly to Brussels or Strasbourg and claim for flights costing up to £300 more than the standard fare. No proof of travel is required, and in Britain the flights are tax-free.MEPs who have tried to get more realistic reimbursements have been told that it would be procedurally impossible to do so. In 1991 a British judge threw out the case against former Labour MEP Leslie Huckfield - who was accused of obtaining two cheques worth £2,524 by deception from British Labour Group campaign funds - because trying him would have "infringed the sovereignty of the European Parliament". Huckfield had not sought parliamentary immunity, and the European Parliament has neither the powers nor the machinery to prosecute its members. The High Court overturned the decision in 1992, only for the House of Lords to uphold the judge's original ruling.

is for Europe's millionaire fugitives. Asil Nadir, Tory Party donor and fugitive from the Serious Fraud Office, is currently resting among the Cypriot olive groves. Swiss businessman Werner Rey is in the Bahamas, away from £1.2bn in creditors' claims arising out of the collapse of his Omni conglomerate. The whereabouts of Jurgen Schneider, the German property tycoon who went bankrupt owing over £3bn, and Swiss banker Jurg Heer, wanted in connection with a £25m bank fraud, are less clear. Perhaps they've heard about last summer's extradition of "King Jacques" Medecin, the former mayor of Nice accused of siphoning off £40m from the city with his cronies, who escaped to Paraguay and set up a T-shirt business - before the police came knocking.

is for Larry Goodman, the Irish beef baron and Fianna Fail donor whose company fraudulently obtained over £30m in extra government and EC subsidies. It also stole millions of pounds' worth of EC-owned beef which it had been contracted to process, and payed virtually no tax. Labour Party leader Dick Spring alleged that this happened with the knowledge of the Fianna Fail government and its then industry and commerce minister, Albert Reynolds. In August, an official tribunal confirmed the company's misdeed s and the government cover-up, but decided that Goodman was only personally responsible for the tax evasion. Fianna Fail's motives remained a mystery, but Reynolds' subsequent efforts to distort the tribunal's findings into an exoneration for him and his party helped provoke the fall of the government in November (also see P). Goodman went unpunished, thanks to an amnesty for tax offenders.

is for ripping off health services. Former Italian health minister Francesco de Lorenzo is standing trial on 97 charges of corruption, including stealing £10m from his government's Aids awareness campaign, running an illegal market in state pharmaceuticals worth £80m a year, and taking bribes from drug companies to issue licences for medicines and set their prices at the highest level in Europe. Also, police recently seized 60 paintings and a leather pouffe stuffed with treasury bonds from the home of another senior Italian health official, Duilio Poggiolini, who is accused of taking bribes. Meanwhile, in Germany's Herzklappen (heart-valve) affair, doctors are alleged to have colluded with manufacturers in overcharging health insurers for heart valves.(The NHS isn't immune to fraud, either: last month the Audit Commission reported 960 cases since 1991, including chemists pocketing prescription charges. The cost - £6m - was relatively small, but the Commission warned of the potential for far greater rip-offs.)

is for inducements. Italy has its own slang for them: spintarella (little push), bustarella (little envelope), and mazzetta (little wad) for a larger sweetener. Concussione are payments of a less consensual nature; the concussore extorts money from the concusso. Tangenti (bribes) are paid for the biggest contracts, a practice so prevalent in Milan that the city was dubbed tangentopoli. This then became the umbrella term for the phenomenon of Italian scandals and their investigation. Also for i llegitimate children, once considered purely a British obsession, but now entertaining our Continental brethren over breakfast, too. Last month Paris-Match published a front cover photo of President Mitterrand with his 20-year-old illegitimate daughter M azarine - thus breaking a conspiracy of silence by the French press comparable to Fleet Street's news blackout on Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson. The magazine also revealed that she and her mother, longtime mistress Anne Pujot, had lived until recently in a guardedofficial residence, under the auspices of Roger-Patrice Pelat and Francois de Grossouvre, two late friends of the President once involved in Les Affaires (see B and S), and defended by Mitterrand at the time.

is for jail, where a few of those involved in sleaze end up. A lot don't: much so-called sleaze isn't actually illegal. For example, there are no European laws against Western companies making payments to officials in developing countries to secure contracts. Such payments are often tax-deductable. Most of those actually in jail are in Italy, held under laws of preventive detention while being investigated. These include Carlo De Benedetti, boss of Olivetti, Fiat's Francesco Paolo Mattioli, and GiuseppeCiarrapico, the "mineral water king" and president of Roma football club. Italy even produces a Handbook for the Aspiring Prisoner. In Spain, meanwhile, the judiciary has been criticised for granting lenient "third grade" prison st atus to two businessmen who are serving 108-year sentences for financing a mercenary group called GAL to fight the Basque separatists ETA. The decision requires them to spend only Monday to Thursday nights in a Madrid jail, with a seven-week holiday thro wn in. Meanwhile, old suggestions that GAL had official backing recently resurfaced with the detention of Gonzalez's former security director Julian Sancristobal, for allegedly using illegal funds and incarceration, and even attempted murder, against ETA.

is for George Koskotas, the former chairman of the Bank of Crete, who fled the country when it was discovered that deposits of £130m had been siphoned off. Former justice minister Agamemnon Koutsogiorgas was accused of accepting a £1.3m bribe to amend the law on banking confidentiality in 1988 to protect Koskotas. Koutsogiorgas had a heart attack in court and died a week later. It looked like PM Papandreou might get caught up in the scandal too, as Koskotas promised proof of bribery and extortion by theprime minister over the bank, but Koskotas was found to have been forging his evidence.

is for Angus Hans Labunski (age 63), the German businessman wanted for questioning by police for 40 million (yes, 40 million) separate invoice rip-offs against big companies such as Guinness and Volvo over the past 20 years. It is alleged that a bogus firm run by Labunski called Intercontex Publishers of America persuades the companies to take an entry in business directories it pretends to publish, then invoices them repeatedly for correcting mistakes deliberately introduced into the copy. The invoices are usually for only a few hundred pounds each, but their sheer numbers add up to over $1m a year over two decades. Watch out for faxed invitations to buy his International Yellow Pages.

is for Mani Pulite (Clean Hands), the ever-widening investigation by dynamic prosecuting magistrates such as Antonio Di Pietro into Italian corruption, which started in 1992. Last July Silvio Berlusconi issued a decree to limit the magistrates' powers ofpreventive detention, which would have released 1,000 people. He failed: the popular magistrates threatened to resign, the public protested, the decree was withdrawn, and Berlusconi's then high ratings started their current nosedive. But recently the appeals court ruled that the all-important Milan magistrates should lose their powers to investigate the scores of tax policemen (see Y) accused of greasing the sleaze system's wheels, helping Berlusconi's Fininvest among others. This contributed to the re signation of Antonio Di Pietro a few days later. The tax policemen's trial switches to Brescia instead, where there are fewer investigative staff. Seeking to get trials moved is a common defence tactic in Italy. Meanwhile, Berlusconi's dogfight with the magistrates continues: after his eight-hour interrogation on charges of bribery in Milan last month, he went on television claiming a judicial "coup d'etat". But the same day all 20 officials investigating the magistrates' alleged misuse of power resigne d, citing unbearable public hostility to their inquiries.

is for Mr Naegels, the Belgian police officer who showed his feelings over alleged corruption in the paramilitary state police by dumping a load of rotten apples outside the house belonging to the chief of Belgium's gendarmerie. Also for Erik Ninn-Hansen, the former Danish justice minister facing impeachment for his part in the Tamilgate refugee scandal that brought down Conservative PM Poul Schueter in 1993.

is for olive oil, favoured for slick agricultural scams. A recent report disclosed that more than 90 per cent of the oil in storage in Europe was of a lower quality than registered, a fiddle worth over £25m. In another slippery affair, the Spanish press alleged that the corrupt Italian tycoon Raul Gardini (see S) made payments to Spanish politicians to ease his way into buying a controlling stake in the Spanish olive oil giant Elosua.

is for priest - Irish Catholic Father Brendan Smyth, whose conviction for sexual offences against children helped start the slow and tortuous collapse of Albert Reynolds's government (see G), culminating in his resignation last November. Smyth had a history of abuse going back to the Fifties, but his offences had been hidden from the law by the church, until he was convicted and jailed in Northern Ireland last summer. Then it was revealed that Ulster's request for his extradition had been allowed to liearound in the Irish attorney-general's office for seven months. Nevertheless, Reynolds decided to force through a promotion of the attorney-general responsible, Harry Whelehan. This led, eventually, to the collapse of the government.

is inevitably for EC quotas: fought over, established and ignored. The milk quota, for example, which was set up to flatten the butter mountain. Member states exceeding it were supposed to pay a punitive "superlevy", but from 1989 to 1993 Italy overproduced by 2 million tonnes, as its government made no attempt to implement the rules, and EC taxpayers paid the fines - only for the excess to be dumped on the world market and given EC export refunds. Fishing quotas are also easily evaded: in 1993 Spanish fishermen built concealed holds to hide huge illegal catches of fish from English and Irish waters, allegedly using EC grants.

is for Luis Roldan, Spain's most wanted man. Head of the Guardia Civil from 1986 to 1993, he was accused in November 1993 of taking £2.5m in bribes for awarding construction contracts while in office, but slipped his police guards this April. Like Craxi (see C), he has threatened to blow the lid off dirty dealings elsewhere in the government. In a letter to Felipe Gonzalez, Roldan claimed to know of a slush fund paying "parallel salaries" to government officials - and said he himself had officially usedgovernment "reserve funds". His disappearance has already caused the resignation of the Interior minister, who was responsible for the Guardia.

is for the unfortunate suicides precipitated by corruption scandals. French ex-prime minister Pierre Beregovoy's was the most dramatic political suicide this century (see B). He was soon followed by Francois de Grossouvre, an old friend and security adviser of Mitterrand's. Like Beregovoy, Grossouvre railed against the corruption in French political life, and was driven into depression when his warnings seemed to be ignored. Last month another Mitterrand aide, former anti-terrorist officer Pierre-Yves Guezou, hanged himself at home, three days after being told he was under investigation for alleged illegal phone tapping from the president's Elysee palace in the mid-Eighties. Italy has had its share of scandal-linked deaths too: Ferruzzi chairman Raul Gardini and ENI boss Gabrielli Cagliari both took their own lives in the wake of a huge bribery trial.

is for Bernard Tapie, the disgraced French businessman, football owner, and maverick socialist politician, whose popularity strangely rises with each new allegation against him. In 1992 he resigned as minister for towns in the Beregovoy government after his business partner George Tranchant accused him of conspiracy and misuse of company property in the "Toshiba Affair". The two of them had been Toshiba's French distributors; Tranchant alleged that Tapie secretly pocketed a £1.3m payoff when Toshiba switched to another company. They settled out of court, and Tapie was back in the government within months. Then it was revealed that players from the football team Valencienne had been paid to throw a match against the Tapie-owned Olympique Marseille. Investigators dug up the money in a back garden belonging to the mother of one of the Valencienne players. Marseille were stripped of their European title and relegated to the second division, but Tapie remained club president and owner. Then he got himself elected to the European Parliament, as the head of a new "party" that he had created, the Radicals Movement or MRG. But before his parliamentary immunity could take effect he was hauled out of bed to face charges of tax evasion related to his yacht, the Phocea. Then, in July, Credit Lyonnais, the state bank to which Tapie owes around £150m, seized the contents of his house - only for Tapie to escape immediate ruin when a court decided to postpone his repayment. Tapie started talking on television about running for president. But a fortnight ago another court declared him bankrupt, disqualifying him from elected office until 1999. Tapie said he was appealing, then showed up shaking hands with Mitterrand and Berlusconi at a Franco-Italian summit 24 hourslater.

(in the interests of fairness) is for the United Kingdom, littered with sleaze of our own. An almost-complete A-Z: A for arms-to-Iraq; B for BCCI; C for cash-for-questions; D for doctors and their "ghost" patients; E for extravagance at the Welsh Development Agency; F for Mohamed Al-Fayed; G for Gott; H for Health Promotion Wales; I for illegal deportations; J for Dr Gwyn Jones; K for Keys for Sale; L for law-breaking by Michael Howard; M for Matrix Churchill; N for the National Rivers Authority HQ; O for Milligan's orange; P for the Pergau dam; Q for quangos; R for the Paris Ritz; S for Stoke Newington Police; T for David Tredinnick; U for undeclared Members' Interests; V for Venables; W for Westminster's gerrymandering; X for unmanned X-ray machines at Whitemoor; Y for Timothy Yeo.

is for the Vatican, the only church headquarters with its own banking structure, the Institute of Religious Works (IOR), which has links deep into the old Italian system. Magistrates concluded that the IOR was partly responsible for the 1982 collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano (see C), where it had made investments through Roberto Calvi, who was dubbed "God's banker". The IOR denied it, but paid out £160m in compensation to the bank's creditors. Magistrates sought to arrest Archbishop Marcinkus, then president of the bank, but were overruled on the basis that the IOR, as a Vatican institution, is beyond the reach of Italian law. In 1993 Cardinal Rosario Castillo Lara admitted that the IOR had unknowingly handled £30m in bribes to Italian political partiesby the Ferruzzi family empire, and had to deny claims that it had earned a commission of £4m on the deal.

is for waste - not what's found in every bureaucracy, but rubbish. The closure of a legal loophole which lets Europe dump toxic waste on developing countries as "recyclable" material has created a profitable new crime: waste smuggling. Illegal waste companies in Europe are paid vast sums by European and American businesses to get rid of their excrescences overseas.

is for the X on the ballot papers in a variety of sleaze-affected elections. In 1990 a French consultancy firm called Urba made large undisclosed contributions to Mitterrand's re-election campaign. In 1992 Henri Emmanuelli, then President of the NationalAssembly and once treasurer of the French Socialist Party, was charged with complicity in illegal fund-raising during campaigns. Now party leader, he's due to go on trial in the next few weeks.

is for the Yellow Flames, nickname of the tainted Italian tax and customs police, the Guardia de Finanza. Their job is to audit companies objectively; their reputation is for taking bribes to help businessmen avoid tax. Forty-eight past and present officers have been arrested on corruption charges, which include allegations that they did favours for Berlusconi's Fininvest group. Three have committed suicide.

is for Eduard Zwick, the German "Spa King" who made millions building Bavarian resorts, didn't pay his taxes, escaped arrest by fleeing to Switzerland, and now threatens to destroy the state's political establishment from exile. Zwick was a close friend of the late Franz Josef Strauss, Bavarian prime minister and head of the Christian Social Union (CSU). Zwick made big clandestine contributions to the CSU, and failed to pay over £28m in taxes - a sum Strauss unsuccessfully urged his finance ministry to reduce. In January, the Bavarian authorities arrested Zwick's son and heir Johannes in connection with alleged tax evasion too. Enraged, Zwick alleged that Strauss had helped him avoid taxes, and has tried to smear current PM Edmund Stoiber by claiming he knew all about it. Zwick has already caused one casualty - finance minister Gerold Tandler has resigned after admitting borrowing money from him - and his allegations are creating a general unease about the state's relian ce on Spezlnwirtschaft (doing business with your mates). Zwick is now threatening revelations that Strauss avoided taxes himself, using Zwick's banks in Switzerland. Expect a Z entry for this year too. !

Angus Hans Labunski, referred to in this article under the letter L, and previously referred to as Angus Labunski, is not Angus Boris Labunski who is a director of Malerei Limited. We apologise for any confusion caused.