Missing Parmalat billions 'traced to US account'

Claims that €7bn (£5bn) belonging to the fallen food giant Parmalat had been located in the United States gave Parmalat creditors unexpected hope yesterday, sending shares in some Italian lenders up more than 5 per cent during the day.

The claim was published on an Italian news website, TGFin, owned by the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's company Mediaset. It credited the information to a Parmalat creditors' committee in Italy, which says it represents 20,000 investors.

If true, the claim could make a critical difference to the fortunes of Italy's eighth-biggest company, which was only saved from total destruction on Christmas Eve when the Italian government pushed through a law protecting Parmalat from its creditors.

Prosecutors believe fictitious assets concealed a hole in Parmalat's accounts estimated at between €10bn and €13bn.

However,Italy's stock market regulator, Consob, is believed to be looking at "movements in the market that resulted from statements that have been made" to see whether anybody had benefited from the movements in stocks.

Lawyers for the creditors' committee made a legal filing attesting to the discovery. The founder and ex-chairman of Parmalat, Calisto Tanzi, has admitted to taking only €500m from the group, which he said he used to prevent a family tour company, Parmatour, from going bust.

On the TGFin website it was claimed the funds had been transferred by 10 different Italian credit institutions to their respective branches in the US, then collected in a single Bank of America account.

The lawyers behind the claim later retreated from that detail saying they had traced the funds using a group of investigators and "press talk". Carlo Zauli, one of the three lawyers, told Reuters: "I am using investigators who are working globally, men who are able to spot financial flows, movements of money." But he admitted he had no documentary proof. Parmalat, under the chairmanship of the restructuring expert Enrico Bondi, said it had "no knowledge of the existence" of the alleged treasure trove.

Parmalat yesterday sacked Deloitte & Touche as auditors, a day after doing the same to Grant Thornton Spa. Grant Thornton International meanwhile distanced itself from its Italian firm, Grant Thornton Spa, saying it had expelled the Italian firm from the international network.

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