Parmalat blame is pinned on its 'worn-out' founder

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The founder and former chairman of Italy's fallen food giant, Parmalat, was said to be "totally worn out" by a doctor who visited him in prison in Milan yesterday, as evidence accumulated of his centrality to the company's demise.

Calisto Tanzi resigned from the company and was detained in jail for questioning after his business empire collapsed in mid-December with debts said to be between ¤10bn and ¤13bn (£7bn-£9bn). Mr Tanzi, 65, has yet to be charged with any offence, but he is under investigation for fraudulent bankruptcy, falsification of accounts and market rigging.

Before the New Year a judge rejected his lawyer's request that he be placed under house arrest. The judge cited a mysterious "holiday" Mr Tanzi took to South America with his wife while his company was collapsing, and said he had not been frank with investigators and might tamper with evidence.

Yesterday, two court-appointed doctors examined Mr Tanzi, who has a history of heart trouble and wears a pacemaker. Fabio Belloni, Mr Tanzi's lawyer, has asked for his client to be moved from San Vittore prison in Milan to a prison in Parma, near his home, which the lawyer said had better medical facilities. "Incarceration by itself is an element of risk for the coronary arteries of our client," he said.

Meanwhile, detail has emerged of how executives close to Mr Tanzi tried to destroy evidence of fraud as the company's day of reckoning approached.

Gianfranco Bocchi, an accountant with the group, had already obeyed orders to shred documents at his desk and destroy papers at his home related to a key Parmalat subsidiary in the Cayman Islands. But when a colleague in accounts, Giovanni Pessina, was instructed by his boss, the chief financial officer Luciano del Soldato, to take his laptop home and destroy it "with a hammer" to get rid of incriminating evidence, he decided the game was up.

He told Mr Pessina not to obey the order. "These people are trying to screw us," he told his colleague. "Let's just take everything straight to the prosecutors." The next day, Mr Bocchi presented himself at the prosecutors' office in Milan with a CD of computer files and began to talk.

Now under arrest with at least seven other senior figures in the firm, Mr Bocchi is one of several voices laying most, or all, of the blame for Parmalat's fraud and failure at the founder's door.

He explained how he had clumsily faked documents purportedly coming from Bank of America to prove the existence of an account containing ¤3.95bn. The bank says the account does not exist. Mr Bocchi said that Fausto Tonna, Mr Tanzi's former right hand man and the company's previous chief financial officer, was the inventor of most of the fraudulent schemes, and that Mr del Soldato, who replaced Mr Tonna, continued the work.

Mr del Soldato, also under arrest, told prosecutors: "Tanzi would try to reassure me, saying he was very close to finding a financial solution [to the group's problems]." He added: "In the meantime he told me to continue falsifying ... accounts which I had inherited from Tonna."

Mr Tonna claimed that Mr Tanzi "was not only aware of all the problems in the group, but was also the person who decided to hide them". "Every time I tried to present him with a financial problem, he would invite me to find a solution which obviously presumed some sort of fraudulent hiding mechanism," Mr Tonna said.

Even Mr Tanzi's allies do not attempt to hide his centrality. His lawyer, Mr Belloni, said: "[Parmalat] was his baby. He wanted it to grow fast, and he didn't stop and look back."

But according to The Wall Street Journal yesterday, Mr Tanzi told Italian investigators that he was not to blame for the alleged fraud, and accused his chief lieutenants.

He told the judge on Tuesday, with tears in his eyes: "This is the company I built ­ and now it's no longer mine."