Parmalat investigators question former finance director over missing billions

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The Independent Online

Fausto Tonna, the former chief financial officer of the fallen food giant Parmalat, who is said to have been the author of the group's byzantine schemes for hiding its multi-billion euro debts, told reporters yesterday: "I wish you and your families a slow and painful death."

Mr Tonna has been arrested on suspicion of faking accounts and destroying evidence. He spat the remark at camera crews and photographers pursuing him inside Parma's court building, betraying the stress of an investigation which has seen him, his former boss, Parmalat founder Calisto Tanzi, and six others jailed for interrogation.

Mr Tanzi, chairman of the family food group, Italy's eighth biggest company, until his removal last month after its massive hidden losses were revealed, has spent his eighth night in San Vittore Jail in Milan where he has already faced dozens of hours of interrogation. Over the weekend Mr Tanzi offered to turn over his yachts and private plane as well as other family assets, including Parmatour, a tourism company, to help the group he built from humble beginnings to survive. Parmalat has 36,000 employees around the world.

A source close to Enrico Bondi, the restructuring expert who is trying to salvage the company, replied acidly: "Parmalat's litigants and creditors don't need any more useless gestures. They need to know where the money is."

Yesterday Mr Tonna was said to have repeated his previous claim that whatever happened at Parmalat to deceive investors about the company's health was done at the instigation of his boss. "I didn't initiate anything," he was reported as saying. "I only carried out orders." He underwent four hours of questioning yesterday morning, and a second session was expected to stretch into the night.

Mr Tonna was removed as chief financial officer last year after a planned bonds issue - one of many to raise cash for the group - had to be aborted.

Meanwhile clients of Grant Thornton, the accounting firm caught up in the Parmalat scandal, were showing their supportyesterday despite its involvement in the Italian company's descent in to bankruptcy. Grant Thornton acts as auditor to about 100 mainly small to medium-sized listed UK companies.

Sheffield United, SR Pharma and Avocet Mining were among those which said the revelations in Italy would not affect their use of Grant Thornton.

Jonathon Henry, the finance director of Avocet Mining, said yesterday: "We have talked about it at board level, but we are happy with the service Grant Thornton provides. We also have our own very strict internal controls that allow us to monitor them too, so we are confident that our business is very transparent."

Two partners of Grant Thornton's Italian division have now been suspended from the firm, following their arrest by Italian authorities last week. Grant Thornton audited the accounts of Bonlat, the Cayman Islands subsidiary of Parmalat that claimed to have $4bn (£2.2bn) in a fake bank account.