Dull professor with the Midas touch: Magistrates uncover Italian bureaucrat's fabulous haul

HE looked just what he was supposed to be: a professor and civil servant who, with newspaper and rolled umbrella, would have blended in perfectly with the hundreds who go to work in Whitehall on the Tube every day.

But privately Professor Duilio Poggiolini, head of the Health Ministry's pharmaceuticals commission, was a Croesus, a King Midas or - as his fellow inmates in Naples' Poggioreale jail now call him - an Ali Baba.

Almost every week investigating magistrates uncover fresh riches that Prof Poggiolini and his wife have stashed away in bank accounts and in their homes. Millions upon millions of pounds' worth of gold coins and ingots, treasury bonds, jewels, Swiss francs or lire: the rewards - they believe - for raising the prices of pharmaceuticals to the skies and possibly for allowing dangerous ones to be sold.

Now they have seized a haul that has left even scandal-hardened Italians gasping: 60 paintings, including Picassos, Modiglianis, Dalis, De Chiricos and Guttusos. They are now locked up in the former royal palace in Caserta awaiting valuation by its art experts.

This comes on top of the Aladdin's Cave found under the stairs in Mrs Poggiolini's home: a safe containing 6,000 golden guineas, 100 gold ingots, eight of them weighing 1kg each, 20 large diamonds, 10 silver ingots and hundreds upon hundreds of other gold coins - Krugerrands, Tsar Nicholas II roubles and valuable Roman coins.

To date the magistrates have also found: a Swiss bank account containing 13m Swiss francs; 20 other Swiss bank accounts, details unknown; two Italian bank accounts containing 15bn lire ( pounds 6.25m); one in Mrs Poggiolini's name containing 60bn lire; two others containing 500m lire each and one account, since closed, that had contained 5bn lire.

Prof Poggiolini's wife, who has the curious name of Pierr, is suspected of being his business partner, too. A chemistry graduate, she acted as 'consultant' for a number of pharmaceutical companies and was said to be a familiar figure in the Health Ministry.

She is alleged to have received rich jewels for her services, and is now under suspicion of moving money from her husband's accounts after he was arrested to the presumed safety of her own. When police came to take away her paintings yesterday they allegedly also found bank deposit receipts worth 10bn lire sewn into the upholstery of a pouffe in her living room. She is in jail in Rome.

Whether the Poggiolinis actually enjoyed their incredible wealth is a mystery. Apart from the paintings, which may have been given to them rather than bought, there is no evidence of any particularly lavish lifestyle. On the contrary, it seemed to be extremely dull.

He, aged 64, lived in an apartment with his old mother. She, 61, lived in a house in the suburb of EUR with her badly handicapped son aged 30 from her first marriage.

Prof Poggiolini, a former member of the conspiratorial P2 Masonic lodge, was allegedly heavily involved in what Milan's Clean Hands magistrates have described as the most repellent scandal so far: self-enrichment at the expense of the sick and the health services.

The Prime Minister, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, worried about the effect of the scandals on Italy's image abroad, insisted in parliament yesterday that 'this thievery, although immense and although attributed to people responsible for the security of the state, does not reach into the heart of our democracy . . . Italy is solid and is continuing on its road to renewal.'

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