Parmalat's fall guy comes out fighting

I was betrayed, says ex-phone operator turned manager
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The Independent Online

The Parmalat "switchboard operator" named as managing director or president of at least 25 shady subsidiaries of the fallen Italian food giant has come out fighting.

"What did I know about tricks, or what the judges describe as embezzlement?" Angelo Ugolotti demanded yesterday, a day after being grilled for hours by investigators. "I was betrayed, and now I have to defend myself against charges of which I am innocent."

The Ugolotti story is only one in the relentless stream of disclosures emerging from an investigation that is forging ahead in Italy at blinding speed. With nine alleged ringleaders in the multibillion-euro Parmalat fraud behind bars for interrogation, and the investigation of 25 others (including Mr Ugolotti) under way, prosecutors hope that a trial may begin within a month.

A day after investigators carted away large boxes of documents from the Milan office of Bank of America - one of the many top banks under suspicion of having aided Parmalat's fraud - a former head of the bank's Italian corporate division claimed that Parmalat had fooled him. "Every day I curse the choice those madmen made in picking Bank of America for their games," said Luca Sala. "But when you have a client like Parmalat, which is bringing in all that money and has industries around the world, you don't exactly ask them to show you their bank statements."

Mr Ugolotti, who leapt from nowhere to nationwide fame on Friday, also says that he was tricked. And as more details emerged about his lifestyle, the claim seemed plausible.

Calisto Tanzi, the founder of Parmalat and Mr Ugolotti's boss, roamed the globe in his $45m Bombardier Global Express executive jet, and relaxed in a $10m prewar sloop formerly owned by Herman Goering.

Mr Ugolotti, promoted from the switchboard to head of Parmalat's commercial department, shared a small house in his native village with his 80-year-old mother, a paralysed aunt confined to a wheelchair and an unmarried brother. The garden is the size of a postage stamp, the gate rusty, the bell broken. Only the grey Mercedes parked outside hints at a different reality.

"Calisto the Great" rubbed shoulders with world leaders and bought up South American football clubs the way other people buy shoes. Mr Ugolotti spent his spare time as a volunteer ambulance driver with a local charity, Blue Cross. In December 2002, he was voted its president for the seventh time.

The losses of Parmalat, which went bankrupt last month, were concealed in a baffling array of offshore companies (one was even called Black Hole), many of which had Angelo Ugolotti, managing director, on the letterhead. But Mr Ugolotti is indignant at the suggestion that he was in on the scam.

"[Tanzi's right-hand man] Fausto Tonna brought me papers to sign," he said. "In this way, all of a sudden, I find myself to be manager of this, president of that and a member of many, many boards of directors. I put my name on documents because I trusted Tanzi. End of broadcast. What did I know about tricks or what the judges are now calling embezzlement? I was betrayed, and now I am forced to defend myself against charges of which I am innocent."

A faithful paper-shuffler at Parmalat for 30 years, he now appears to have been the perfect fall-guy. Yesterday he received another blow to his self-esteem: Blue Cross asked him to resign. "He was our president for years," said vice-president Marco Mazza, "and always carried out the task with transparency and great dedication ... What's happened to Angelo is a hard blow for all of us. Because it's not easy to make people believe that we are clean."