Arrests of politicians with links to Mafia contracts fraud shake Italy

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The Independent Online

A round-up of leading politicians, lawyers and mafiosi accused of collaborating to cheat the state has shaken Italy's southern backwater of Basilicata "like an earthquake".

A round-up of leading politicians, lawyers and mafiosi accused of collaborating to cheat the state has shaken Italy's southern backwater of Basilicata "like an earthquake".

The public prosecutor behind the purge is a half-British, Somerset-born magistrate who styles himself Henry John Woodcock. He has long hair, rides a powerful motorbike and at the age of 37 has made a name for himself as a scourge of the powerful and corrupt.

Basilicata, on the instep of the Italian boot, has none of the lurid Mafia history of Sicily or neighbouring Calabria. It is best known for the vehemence with which the regional population united last year to force the central government to drop its plan to store radioactive waste by the sea. Its calm and recent good luck with tourism and agriculture have given it the nickname "Basilicata Felix" ­ "Happy Basilicata". But the arrests this week are universally described in the Italian media as an "earthquake".

They are the result of an investigation lasting three years, documented in an 800-page report. The report chronicles how politicians across the political spectrum, including both Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the former communist Left Democrats, colluded with confirmed gangsters to ensure that public works contracts were awarded only to firms linked to the Mob. The politicians were rewarded with bribes and guaranteed election votes.

Mr Woodcock is the son of an Italian mother and a British professor at Livorno's Naval Academy. He was raised in Naples. Reputed to have a gargantuan appetite for work, he has already overseen the arrest for violence and slander of another prominent Basilicata politician.

Those fingered in his latest onslaught constitute a roll-call of the region's top dogs. They include Filippo Bubbico, the president of the region, a member of Left Democrats and the most powerful man in Basilicata; Gianfranco Blasi, a MP with Forza Italia and the party's organiser for the south of Italy; the heads of two top lawyers' organisations in the region, and a mayor and former mayor of Potenza, the regional capital. The president of Basilicata's penal chamber, Piervito Bardi, was arrested and accused of feeding gangsters with information aboutinvestigations against them. When the news of Mr Bardi's arrest broke, the lawyers of Potenza declared they were going on strike for the rest of the week.

The key gangster fingered by the investigation is Renato Martorano, who was also arrested. Prosecutors claim that Mr Martorano and his political friends developed an ingenious scheme for entangling legitimate businessmen. Firms wishing to bid for work on a new hospital or resurfacing the region's roads were obliged to take out insurance policies with an agency run by Mr Martorano's wife. Apparently legitimate insurance contributions were in fact payments to the Mob, which often had a lock on the choice of manpower for the works.

The arrests provoked shock and consternation in Rome. Piero Fassino, head of the Left Democrats, spoke of his "solidarity and esteem" for his party colleague Mr Bubbico. Forza Italia officials claimed "political persecution".

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