- The “Clean Hands” investigation into corruption began in Milanin February 1992 with the arrest by prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro of Mario Chiesa, a Partito Socialista Italiano/Italian Socialist Party (PSI) politician with close links to the party leader, Bettino Craxi. Chiesa’s arrest triggered corruption inquiries all over the country, but the Milan “pool” of prosecutors would remain the spearhead of the investigations into illicit activities by politicians over the next three years.In retrospect, the “Clean Hands” investigation developed in five main phases. The first phase was the easiest: the discovery of the corruption surrounding public works contracts in Milan and dozens of other cities all over Italy. By the fall of 1992, literally thousands of businessmen had confessed to paying politicians. Soon, dozens of politicians at the local and regional levels, as well as parliamentary deputies from all the main parties, had been indicted on charges of corruption, extortion, and illegal financing of the political parties. The second phase of the investigation, by the Milanese prosecutors in particular, of the leadership of the PSI, was the one that brought down the political system. By the end of April 1993, the Milan “pool” had asked Parliamentfor authorization to indict Bettino Craxi on diverse counts of corruption and extortion. When Parliament refused to lift immunity, there were street demonstrations all over Italy and the one-day-old government of Carlo Azeglio Ciampi collapsed ignominiously. During the summer of 1993, the investigation spread into health care contracts. When a government official responsible for authorizing new pharmaceuticals for the Italian market was arrested in his home, the police discovered thousands of Kruggerrands and other gold coins, gold ingots, and Swiss bank accounts worth tens of millions of francs. The health minister, Francesco De Lorenzo of the Partito Liberale Italiano/Italian Liberal Party (PLI), was also arrested and charged with organizing rake-offs from the public money being spent to combat AIDS.It was clear that none of the former parties of government was clean (and the opposition Partito Democratico della Sinistra/Democratic Party of the Left had not escaped unscathed either). In December 1993, Antonio Di Pietro used the trial of Sergio Cusani to put the entire Italian political class on trial. Cusani was a Milanese financier who had disbursed “the mother of all bribes” (150 billion lire) from the chemical company Enimont. One by one, the heads of the main political parties were called as witnesses and subjected to merciless cross-examination. In front of some of the largest television audiences in Italian history, they collectively admitted to taking immense sums. The treasurer of the DC, Senator Severino Citaristi, admitted in court that the DC had raised 85 billion lire a year in illicit contributions like the one from Enimont. Even Umberto Bossi admitted that he had received an undeclared “donation” from Enimont to help the activities of the Lega Nord.The Cusani trial was the apex of the third phase of the Mani pulite investigation. In 1994, the fourth phase began when attention shifted to the media empire of Silvio Berlusconi. In November, it was officially announced that Berlusconi, who was by now prime minister, was under investigation. The Milanese judges also began investigating Berlusconi’s personal lawyer, Cesare Previti, who was accused of corrupting judges in Rome on Berlusconi’s behalf.The Milan prosecutors found themselves increasingly on the defensive after Berlusconi came to power. Di Pietro was forced to resign to defend himself against allegations of personal wrongdoing; the other judges were abused by the political parties and the press. Politicians across the political spectrum accused prosecutors throughout the country of usurping political power in order to establish “a republic of judges.” Berlusconi’s newspapers talked of judges with “red robes” who were doing the bidding of the Left. Corruption was all but openly defended as having been necessary to combat the well-funded Partito Comunista Italiano/Italian Communist Party (PCI), which received under-the-counter funding from the cooperative movement and the USSR. The combination of political opposition and Italy’s notoriously slow legal process has resulted in many politicians escaping all but scot-free. Most politicians who admitted to taking bribes for their parties managed to escape with suspended sentences or plea bargains; some have even returned to political life at the local or even national level. Berlusconi, the biggest fish caught by the investigations, used his political power retrospectively to decriminalize some of the charges upon which he had been found guilty. Corruption, while not as ubiquitous as in the 1980s, remains a serious problem in Italy today.
Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. Mark F. Gilbert & K. Robert Nilsson. 2007.
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