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Wiretaps Unfold Italian Tycoons' Dirty Laundry

August 24, 2005|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — The 53-year-old mother of five offers words of comfort to the man on the other end of the line.

"Stay calm, stay calm," she says to him, over and over. "Re-l-a-x."

"Thanks, dear," he says at one point in the conversation.

The woman is the wife of the gray-haired governor of Italy's central bank, one of the most powerful financial positions in the country. The man is not the gray-haired governor.

But he does hold another powerful position. And as the chief executive of Banca Popolare Italiana, Gianpiero Fiorani is the target of an investigation into whether he and three other businessmen conspired to finance a $10-billion takeover of another bank through illegal means.

Fiorani and the woman with the Lady Macbeth tendencies have become entangled in the Italian judiciary's investigative weapon of choice: wiretaps.

Investigators aren't the only ones listening in. Widely published transcripts of the conversations, and those of other bank executives and several real estate tycoons -- laced with risque jokes, lovey-dovey cooing and political intrigue -- have exploded into a sizzling summer scandal of soap-operatic proportions.

Italians can't get enough of it, titillated by a glimpse of the elite's dirty laundry.

Electronic snooping designed to snare terrorists and Mafia kingpins is trapping some unexpected prey. Surreptitious listening is now so common in Italy that people with little or no connection to criminal cases have found themselves recorded and their private utterings made public in newspapers.

In a new study titled "No Secret," the Italian think tank Eurispes estimated that the government had spent $1.6 billion on nearly 200,000 phone call intercepts in the last five years. Millions of people could have been overheard, the group said.

Although some of the numbers may be overstated, no one disputes the high volume. One of Italy's largest cellphone companies complained this year that government-ordered taps -- 7,000 at one time -- had maxed out its technological capacity.

With their historical mistrust of authority and only-tentative social contract with the state, Italians appear transfixed by the scandal and not particularly outraged at the prolific bugging.

Social commentator Beppe Severgnini said Italians were fascinated because the revelations confirmed so much of what they already suspected was going on. As long as dirt is being dished, they'll put up with things -- what Severgnini called a kind of "nasty trade-off."

"Italians have a deep-rooted wariness and diffidence toward people in power," said Severgnini, author of "The Italian Mind," a tongue-in-cheek look at the country's mores. "We can overlook [invasion of privacy] when privacy is a screen behind which lots of unsavory things happen."

Plus, in a country that has endured Mafia atrocities, rampant corruption and decades of terrorism of every stripe, Italians see that wiretapping gets results. Law enforcement officials argue that electronic eavesdropping is a relatively inexpensive, safe and sanitized way to fight crime and foil subversive plots.

Suspected terrorists have been heard discussing suicide bombings and chemical warfare, often in code. Crooked soccer players have talked about whether to throw a game. Businessmen have outlined creative accounting procedures that eventually brought down major companies. Gangsters have planned hits, courted their girlfriends, offered money to receptive politicians and explored new ways to run their business.

After wiretaps more than a decade ago helped capture one of Cosa Nostra's top bosses, Salvatore "The Beast" Riina, investigators kept listening -- and discovered an entirely new Mafioso MO.

"The toy is broken," one of Riina's lieutenants said. "Yes, things are changing," said another. "We must get the toy back on its feet. But with time, time and patience."

Today, Riina's successor, and Italy's most-wanted fugitive, Bernardo "The Tractor" Provenzano, avoids the phone and communicates with his henchmen through handwritten notes. Just this month, however, another fugitive was captured after he phoned his mother.

Italian law requires a prosecutor or police investigator to obtain permission from a court to eavesdrop or monitor phone traffic. But the permits are granted routinely for a long list of possible offenses, and Italian land-line and cellular phone companies cooperate -- and are reimbursed for their efforts -- making the process fairly simple.

Once transcripts of the recordings are supplied to defense attorneys, it is not illegal to publish them.

Italian law enforcement officials, judges and prosecutors say eavesdropping has proved to be their most valuable tool in building court cases. From murderous mobsters to pedophiles to, most recently, a suspect in the failed July 21 bombings in London, the ability to listen in has been vital, officials say.

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