Industrialists, the press and the Olivetti town of Ivrea in Piedmont have been stunned by the announcement on Saturday that a warrant had been issued for Mr De Benedetti's arrest for allegedly paying 10bn lire ( pounds 4.2m) in bribes to political parties in return for contracts to supply equipment to the Post Ministry.
In May this year Mr De Benedetti, aware that Olivetti's dealings were about to come under scrutiny, went to Antonio di Pietro, the leading 'clean hands' magistrate and - he said - told all. He took full responsibility for all Olivetti's illicit dealings, declaring that it had been forced to pay bribes to get vital public contracts and save jobs, and denouncing the 'racket' run by the politicians.
The Milan magistrates appeared to have accepted his confession and neither he nor other Olivetti chiefs were arrested. Later, however, a Rome magistrate, Maria Cordova, took over the case after a sharp legal tussle with Milan. The warrant is for Mr De Benedetti's 'preventive detention', a move made if the magistrates fear the suspect will either hide or manipulate evidence, is a public danger, will repeat the crime or will flee from justice. Dr Cordova's motives have not been explained.
The carabinieri went first to Mr De Benedetti's home in Turin and then to the company at Ivrea only to be told that the industrialist was away. His lawyers quickly announced that he planned to return tomorrow and would be at the magistrates' disposal. Olivetti sources hinted he was not far away and possibly not abroad, as widely reported, but was reluctant to spend the weekend in prison waiting to be questioned. 'He's not a fugitive from justice,' one stressed.
Even to a nation accustomed to seeing many of its most prominent citizens in jail, the warrant was a shock. Mr De Benedetti, unlike most of his fellow industrialists, had been openly antagonistic to the old political class in Italy, and two publications he owns, the daily La Repubblica and the weekly l'Espresso, spearheaded the attacks on the system which eventually culminated in the corruption investigations and the collapse of the old parties. Through La Repubblica he is also one of the principal shareholders in the Independent.
The journalists of La Repubblica expressed 'great concern' about the warrant in a front-page statement, and assured readers the affair would not 'in any way weaken our commitment to free, complete and independent reporting'. The newspaper's usually irrepressible cartoonist, Forattini, drew himself handing over his sketch pad and pencil to Eugenio Scalfari, the editor, with the words: 'You do the cartoon today, sir.'
Mr De Benedetti is not new to storms of this sort. He has been sentenced to six years in jail for fraudulent bankrupcty in connection with the collapse of Roberto Calvi's Banco Ambrosiano, on whose board he sat for 65 of its last, fraught days. His lawyers will lodge an appeal.
A Milan 'clean hands' magistrate, Gherardo Colombo, yesterday warned that many accused in the corruption scandals could get off scot-free because the Italian justice system was too slow. Of around 1,000 people under investigation only 250 had been sent for trial and many cases may fall under the statute of limitations, he said.Reuse content