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Italian earthquakes of corruption

JUST Response interviews Domenico Pacitti

JUST Response: You have recently drawn attention to the failure of foreign commentators and the international mainstream press to understand natural disasters in Italy as yet another major source of exploitation for corruption. Could you say something about this?

Domenico Pacitti: Natural disasters reveal the true soul of a nation. In the case of Italy what they reveal is that the soul is dead since they are traditionally exploited for personal financial gain. In Italy natural disasters arrive like manna from heaven and are prayed for by politicians, local administrators and company directors. It would be difficult to think of anything more nauseating and yet this has long been an accepted Italian speciality. If you think I am exaggerating, let's just have a look at some of the facts. Take the earthquake that struck the village of San Giuliano di Puglia in the southern Italian region of Molise on 31 October of last year. Twenty-six children and three adults lost their lives,  while 61 people were injured and some 3,000 were made homeless. The tragic facts were widely reported in the foreign press. The very few newspapers that looked further found the pre-disaster corruption component, namely that the new school building which collapsed had been designed and built with a view to profitmaking rather than safety. What none of them reported was the follow-up social earthquake of post-disaster corruption.

JUST Response: And what was that?

Pacitti: The consortium of 54 private companies that carried out the wooden shelter reconstruction work were placed under investigation by magistrates for fraud and corruption. They are alleged to have secured contracts through bribes and to have supplied fraudulent receipts for the supply of materials. Also, public administrators are alleged to have paid out exorbitant amounts of cash for materials priced at five times going market rates. The mayor of San Giuliano appears to be involved in both areas. As if that were not enough, seventy-three members of the Italian Red Cross were charged with illegally claiming 400 euros a month each for nonexistent expenses. As far as I know, the cases are still ongoing.

JUST Response: So Italian natural disasters reveal pre-disaster corruption and give rise to post-disaster corruption.

Pacitti: That's certainly the usual pattern, though it's not of course a watertight scientific law.

JUST Response: Can you illustrate this?

Pacitti: Well let's look at some other cases. In the May 1998 mudslides at Sarno in the Campania region 155 lost their lives and 30,000 were left homeless.  Pre-disaster corruption that contributed to the catastrophe included the illegal building of inadequate housing in unsafe areas by local crime clans. Added to this, trees on mountain slopes that had helped keep the earth stable had been illegally chopped down and plundered. Romano Prodi and Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who were respectively premier and president at the time, promised swift action. Predictably, the swift action came in the form of post-disaster corruption. Following complaints two years later that just four million euros out of initial government funding of 100 million had actually been spent on the town of Sarno, magistrates began to investigate. Just last March a case was opened against 82 suspects including mayors and high officials linked to prominent politicians. Charges were, as usual, criminal association, corruption, violation of contractual procedures, misuse of state money, abuse of office, falsification of documents and serious fraud. A leading official is charged with having received bribe money in Xmas hampers delivered to his home in return for allocating major work to a contractor. A mayor has been re-elected despite earlier legal proceedings pending against him for embezzlement, bribery and profiteering. About 1,500 homeless are said to have emigrated. Many others are still living in temporary accommodation.

JUST Response: Remarkable.

Pacitti: In September 1997 earth tremors hit the Umbria and Marche regions killing ten people. I think two or three of the 500 who were injured eventually died from their injuries and about 22,000 were evacuated. Less than half of them were housed in temporary accommodation. Magistrates are still investigating profiteering relating to the supply of wooden and metal containers used for accommodation. There have been other arrests for threats aimed at securing contract work, violation of contractual procedures to favour the Mafia and serious fraud against public institutions.

JUST Response: That certainly seems to bear out what you are saying.

Pacitti: Bear in mind that we are talking about a so-called modern western democracy with the world's eighth largest economy in terms of gross domestic product. But there have been even worse cases. The worst case in every sense was the Irpinia earthquake in Campania in November 1980. It is reported to have killed 2,735, injured 8,850 and left 45,050 homeless out of a population of 66,000. An Italian newspaper investigation at the time, directed incidentally by Indro Montanelli, revealed that the equivalent of 26 thousand million euros almost three quarters of the entire funding for reconstruction ended up in the hands of politically backed local Mafia. To date 382 people have been arrested on the usual Mafia and corruption charges. Over a hundred are politicians and local administrators, about 90 are Camorra clan bosses and members, and about 80 are company directors. During the ten years between 1984 and 1994, just over 900 town council administrators received criminal charges. This incredible sum of money, which could have transformed the entire region into a sort of terrestrial paradise, simply disappeared without trace. And its worth adding that major Christian Democrat politicians figured prominently among those who guided corruption.

Note: This interview appeared in JUST Response on August 30 2003.