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Feb 18, 2010 at 06:10 PM

Bertolaso: Et tu, Guido?
  To be published March 3 in Wanted in Rome.

As we write it is hard to know exactly how the latest scandal - that which some of the country's least imaginative journalists have dubbed Bertolaso-Gate - will actually play out. We don't know if Civil Protection chief Guido Bertolaso, despite the ongoing support of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, will be forced to resign. We don't know of what, if anything, the country's most-admired high-profile official is actually guilty. What we do know is that the preliminary results of an investigation into collusion, corruption and bribery by high-ranking civil servants and a group of unscrupulous "costruttori" or builders, that was carried on over the last 18 months by the ROS Carabinieri on orders from the district attorney's office (la Procura) of Florence has left a sour taste in many people's mouths that will be difficult and perhaps impossible to eliminate.

Combined with statistics regarding corruption released just this week by the country's highest administrative court, the Corte dei Conti, this most recent scandal - alas - makes it possible to say that dishonesty is so widespread in this country that there is good reason for despair. The report released by the Court said that in 2009, charges of corruption increased, over 2008, by 229%, (the highest number of convictions regarded the Italian region of Tuscany). And according to Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, Italy ranks 63 out of 180 countries, behind every other Western European nation except Greece and way behind New Zealand, the UK and the US, Canada and Australia.

And in a front-page editorial published yesterday by Italy's major newspaper, Corriere della Sera, historian Ernesto Galli della Loggia wrote that it is a mistake to think that this widespread corruption is. Or ever has been, a political problem. Rather, he says, it is a deep-seated social problem that goes way back in Italian history. In other words, this is a beautiful country, but underneath the surface there is a lot of mud.

At the moment it is difficult to calculate the psychological effect that the accusations of corruption against Bertolaso are bound to have on the relatively few remaining Italians - and their children - who were still capable of trusting and admiring people in the public sphere. Because of his efficacy in puting the lid on the 2008 garbage crisis in Naples and his prompt management of thepost-earthquake rescue operations in L'Aquila, Bertolaso has a great deal of credit among Italians. But the sleazy details regarding an encounter allegedly arranged by contract-hungry businessmen for (and accepted by) the 60 year old Bertolaso with a Brazilian woman named Monica are, whether true or false, may well permanently sully this highly-experienced civil protection expert's reputation forever. Bertolaso insists the meeting with the woman, and a with second one named Francesca, was for physical therapy for his neck problems. And, who knows, that may be true. But it is clear from the sordid accounts published, or rather flaunted in banner headlines, by Italy's newspapers. that those organizing the encounter (who speak of champagne, tangas and condoms) had something else in mind. And this suggests, once again (witness the recent sex shenanigans of the Prime Minister and the Governor of the Lazio region who resigned after his relationship with a transexual surfaced) that men in power, even those who don't take bribes, seem unable to resist the temptations of sex. But there is much more involved than that.

The events that began unfolding in on February 11th when the Procura of Florence issued four arrest warrants - two Civil Protection officials and two businessmen- and announced that dozens of other people, including Bertoloso, at least one major politician from Berlusconi's party, the PPL, and a high-ranking magistrate who has since resigned were being investigated for corruption, suggest that the Clean Hands investigation that followed Tangentopoli, the mega-scandal of the early 1990s that effectively brought down Italy's postwar party system, accomplished next to nothing.

This is not, of course, another Tangentopoli where it was discovered that kickbacks of various types were being asked for by politicians to finance several major political party. In contrast, it appears to be a scandal involving kickbacks from, and favors to, businessmen that were geared to personal enrichment and little else. But it makes it clear that something is still rotten in this country. How else can one explain the fact that one of the phone taps records one builder man telling another that when, on the early morning of April 6, 2008, a massive earthquake hit the city of L'Aquila, "io ridevo": "I was laughing" at the thought of all the work opportunities the disaster would present.

This being Italy, there are of course theories circulating that the investigation was made public now in an attempt to influence next month's nationwide regional elections. Or that this scandal, too, has been cooked up by the left to damage Berlusconi and the members of his immediate circle. But I don't believe that there is a political angle to this.

From the arrest warrants and the injunctions issued so far, most of the alleged corruption charges appear to be linked to contracts awarded to companies for the buildings and infrastructures designed for last July's G8 meeting originally scheduled to be held on the Sardinian island known as La Maddalena and only subsequently later moved to L'Aquila. But there has been mention of corruption involving other major works projects as well.

All this brought to light a major anomaly that had gone more or less unnoticed, and that is that one of the departments in the Department of Civil Protection (which one usually associates with emergencies and natural disasters) is called Grandi Eventi (Major Events). This means that the department headed by Bertolaso has gotten increasingly involved in events as disparate as the GB conference, the coming Milan Expo, and the 11 infrastructure projects (for a total of 339 million euros) planned to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italian unity which takes place next year.

One of the reasons for this is that the government itself knows full well that bureaucratic procedures in Italy are so arcane and overly complicated that nothing can get done quickly. In an interview published on February 14th by the country's major economic daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, Bertolaso himself replied to a question on this issue saying: In a country like ours, where there are no functioning rules and where procedures are largely out of date, in the end everyone - on the left and on the right - calls on us to build highways, railroads, garbage tips, incinerators and so on. Should we say no?....What I wanted was to demonstrate that even in Italy things could be done well and even better than in the private sector".

But the result - ignored for the most part by the Italian press which prefers to focus on sleaze-imbued banner headlines than to do much serious investigative work - was to create a enormous structure with enormous responsibilities headed by a man who, whether he sought it or not, wielded (together with his top lieutenants) enormous power. And evidently that just cannot work in Italy, a country that as the centrist politician, Ferdinando Casini, said the other day, "just has too many thieves".

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