Italy's bisexual Green minister and claims of 'jobs for the boys'

A week before elections, party leader becomes latest high-profile figure in controversial prosecutor's sights
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The Independent Online

One week before the general election, Italy's most colourful cabinet minister is fighting off claims that he accepted hospitality and free travel from businessmen in return for plum public contracts.

Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, leader of Italy's Verdi (Green) party, was the first Italian politician to come out as bisexual. As the nation's leading green, the 48-year-old has fought off GM crops, promoted green energy and rehabilitated industrial sites.

But he has also made plenty of enemies. As a Naples MP, his rejection of plans to build new hi-tech incinerators and open new landfills as ways out of the region's long-running rubbish crisis led to him being pilloried in the city. "Criticism rains down on Pecoraro from every angle," La Stampa newspaper wrote last week, "from the right and the left but also from ... his own party... The fact is, when people hate you so much there are questions to be answered."

And last week the most awkward questions came from another extraordinary figure in Italian public life, a prosecutor from the far south with the improbable name of Henry John Woodcock. Anglo-Italian in origin, Mr Woodcock has put the minister under investigation for alleged crimes of corruption which, if proved, could carry a hefty jail sentence.

"I'm stupefied," Mr Pecoraro Scanio told Corriere della Sera newspaper. "It's a Kafkaesque situation. I learned about this story from the papers and I am stunned to learn what has been attributed to me, and completely blameless. For this to come out one week from polling offends me greatly."

Mr Woodcock has launched a succession of controversial investigations. In June 2006, at Mr Woodcock's behest, a man was arrested in Rome, then driven "bent double" as he later complained, to the southern city of Potenza, where he was locked up.

The man was Prince Victor Emmanuel, the son of Italy's last king. He was arrested to answer accusations involving slot machines and prostitutes. Mr Savoy, as he should be known, was eventually allowed home without charges being pressed.

Subsequently, Mr Woodcock launched a high-profile inquiry focusing on the efforts of a paparazzo called Fabrizio Corona to extort money from his celebrity subjects. A rollcall of famous Italians were required to answer embarrassing questions, including the footballer Francesco Totti and Silvio Berlusconi's daughter Barbara.

Now it is Mr Pecoraro Scanio's moment in the spotlight. On Friday the charges were leaked to the press, and the same day the case files were turned over to the Ministry of Justice in Rome.

On the basis of wiretap evidence it is alleged that Mr Pecoraro Scanio obtained favours from a travel agent, the editor of a green magazine and others in exchange for favours such as jobs and public works contracts. Perks obtained by Mr Pecoraro Scanio, it is said, included air tickets and accommodation at Milan's only seven-star hotel. Yesterday's Italian papers reported that the minister's younger brother, Marco, a Verdi senator, is also under investigation in the inquiry.

But the minister has rejected the charges robustly. And late on Friday aid came from an unexpected quarter: Vittorio Sgarbi, an art critic and former under-secretary at the Culture Ministry under Mr Berlusconi. Mr Sgarbi, now Milan's culture tsar, said: "I know Woodcock and I know that all his legal actions are doomed to fail. Pecoraro is being investigated on the question of air tickets, but even the stones know that free air tickets are among the perks enjoyed by MPs ... To investigate Pecoraro for free tickets is like investigating someone for having their hair cut. It's nonsense."

Mr Sgarbi's outburst has logic. Mr Woodcock's courage in calling Italy's great and good to account has yet to be matched by success in prosecuting them.