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Fake invalids at heart of Italy's postal scandal

Italy's postal system, far from being a thrusting modern communications industry, is being run by an army of invalids, if evidence unearthed by a Roman investigating magistrate is to be believed.

Everyone knows the Italian postal system is awful; the magistrate's report seems to explain why. But, as always in Italy, the reality is more elusive. The core of the problem, it appears, is not that the system is operated by the disabled; but that most of the disabled are fit as fiddles.

The postal service employs 17,000 invalids, all of them with medical certificates to prove how handicapped they are. Far from railing against what is arguably the worst public service in Europe, it seems that our hearts ought to be filled with compassion.

That lithe young woman scowling at her newspaper instead of attending to the long line of customers in front of her may not look unwell, but she has in fact got Parkinson's disease. Don't be hard on the man who sadistically orders you to pull all the staples out of your padded envelope before he will accept it for posting; he has a painful curvature of the spine. And go easy on the postmen who take a week to carry letters across town, or several months to send them out of the country. Many should be in wheelchairs, and they carry out their task only out of a strong sense of civic duty.

That's the official version of events. The investigating magistrate, Giorgio Castellucci, has his doubts, particularly since he discovered that one "handicapped" postal worker plays football on his afternoons off, that another has a second job as a gym teacher and that a third is an aspiring fashion model whose severe mobility problem disappears on the catwalk.

Welcome to invalidopoli, the latest scandal to erupt in this scandal- prone country. It has never been a secret that fake invalidity certificates were a dime a dozen in Italy - about one in two is false - but never before has anything this systematic been uncovered.

According to Mr Castellucci, the post office scam costs the state billions of lire in fraudulent invalidity benefits, as well as doing a disservice to the genuinely disabled, who are being squeezed out of badly needed jobs.

He has indicted 90 people, including doctors, health officials and post office managers, as well as the fake invalids themselves. He expects the final number of people sent for trial to exceed 2,500.

The scam dates back to the late 1980s, when the Post and Telecommunications Ministry was in the hands of the small, now defunct, Social Democrat party. According to the prosecution, the then post office minister, Carlo Vizzini, and his friends, handed out jobs to the sons and daughters of influential associates like sandwiches at a party, using a quota on employment of the disabled as a way of sneaking them through the back door.

In one Sicilian village, Militello Rosmarino, where the Social Democrats were keen to gather votes, about 500 of the 1,500-strong population were at one point registered as disabled. Many were inscribed illegally on the local electoral roll - registered as living at the then mayor's house - even though they worked in post offices in other parts of Sicily.

Whole families lived off the salaries and pensions from the scam, and returned the favour by propping up the Social Democrats' small share of the Italian vote.

Militello Rosmarino was cleaned up three years ago, following an investigation by the Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana, a publication memorably denounced as "pornographic" by the head of the local health authority, who is now in jail. The disabled population has since fallen to fewer than 20.

The rest of Italy is only now waking up to the scale of the scandal. Since Mr Castellucci launched his investigation a few weeks ago, one post office building in Rome which contains personnel records has mysteriously caught fire, while documents on disability registration at a major public health centre in the capital have vanished into thin air. The number of people turning up at public offices to claim disability benefit has suddenly dropped by several thousand.

The post office scandal gives and insight into what happens when an essential public service is used for years as a pork-barrel for nepotism. The post arrives hopelessly late or not at all. Service is surly and inefficient. Bloated staffing levels have blown a huge hole in the already debt-ridden national finances.

The new mayor of Militello Rosmarino, Nuccio Carrara, estimates that 55,000 of the post office's 200,000-odd salaried positions need to be cut. He believes the judiciary may have been deliberately tipped off about the invalidity scandal by post office managers, keen to axe jobs without offending the powerful public sector unions.

The most serious losers, whatever happens, will be the country's real disabled, who have always suffered in silence in a country which considers them a source of shame and mostly keeps them hidden behind closed doors.

About 10,000 are looking for work in Rome alone. Every six months, the state assigns 600 of them to subsidised private sector jobs, but 90 per cent are immediately rejected. In the last year, the state administration has taken on only 35 genuinely disabled people - compared with the thousands registered as handicapped who are in fact perfectly fit.