Italy's clean-up team face a whitewash

Di Pietro target for police raids as anti-corruption team breaks ranks
What ever happened to the team of anti-corruption magistrates who brought the rotten Italian political system to its knees four years ago? The old politicians may have been dumped or recycled, but the endemic corruption shows no sign of being brought under control. As for the magistrates, clearly feeling frustrated at their inability to finish of the job they started so brilliantly, they have spent the past few weeks at each others' throats.

The atmosphere has turned to pure poison, with magistrates investigating other magistrates, trying to take over each other's investigations and denouncing each other to higher authorities for alleged professional irregularities.

Nobody has been caught up in this more than Antonio Di Pietro, the most famous of the corruption-busters who quit the judiciary two years ago to seek a new career in politics.

Yesterday morning he woke up to the unpleasant surprise of a massive police raid on every address where he has either lived or worked in the past few years - the sort of treatment usually reserved for high-profile terrorists or Mafia killers.

Finance police armed with a warrant issued by magistrates in the northern town of Brescia conducted a total of 50 dawn raids, rousing Mr Di Pietro's family out of bed near Milan. Quite what they found was not clear, although judicial sources said the raids were ordered because Mr Di Pietro - regularly cited as Italy's most popular public figure - was suspected of allowing himself to be corrupted by key witnesses during his time as a magistrate in Milan.

It is almost impossible to judge whether the allegations have any foundation, since the tawdry atmosphere has made the evidence of key witnesses subject to every kind of low political manipulation. Mr Di Pietro himself concluded last month that the only appropriate response to the non-stop smears was to resign his post as public works minister.

What one can conclude is that the squabbling within the magistrature is a measure of its growing toothlessness. Instead of nailing cabinet ministers and captains of state industry, as they were four years ago, they are now out to get each other.

Even Mr Pietro's former colleagues in the "Clean Hands" team of anti- corruption magistrates in Milan have broken ranks. Testifying in the latest interminable trial concerning Mr Di Pietro in Brescia last week, they barely concealed their contempt for him and his decision to leave them in the lurch by resigning in December 1994. Chief prosecutor Francesco Saverio Borrelli even suggested that a bout of psychotherapy might have helped him overcome the troubles that prompted him to quit.

It would be wrong to think the judiciary's woes are limited to Mr Di Pietro, however. One of the two magistrates investigating the case, Alberto Cardino of La Spezia, was recently subjected to a disciplinary procedure on the rather vague grounds that he had spoken too freely to the media. Most of the investigation has now been transferred to the Perugia prosecutors' office - supposedly for reasons of bureaucratic convenience but very possibly as a means of downgrading its importance in the eyes of the public.

According to the chief prosecutor in La Spezia, Antonio Conte, Mr Cardino's real misdemeanour may have been to touch too many raw nerves in the establishment. "My fear is that other magistrates will draw the conclusion that it is better not to go near the interests of the powerful," Mr Conte said.

Certainly, the anti-corruption drive, known as tangentopoli, has come to a dead end, nearly all of the thousands of suspects initially arrested and questioned are now free, and all political talk is of bringing the process to a definitive conclusion, not by drawing up new anti-corruption legislation but by calling some kind of judicial amnesty.

Another Milan prosecutor, Gerardo D'Ambrosio, warned last week that tangentopoli could turn into a total whitewash. "If the trials that have been called are not hurried up, there is the risk they will be wiped out by the statute of limitations," he said.