For the people of L’Aquila, the worst was not the earthquake that struck on the night of April 6 last year, killing over 300 people and destroying much of the city center. Worse was to learn that at 4 AM on that same fateful night, two well-connected builders were already rubbing their hands with glee about the fat contracts to rebuild the city, which they planned to get from their friends in the government. Worse was the day that Guido Bertolaso–white knight of Italy’s Civil Defense Authority, brought in by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to oversee relief and reconstruction–was named among a group of government officials suspected of taking bribes and businessmen suspected of cashing in on contracts not only in L’Aquila but in Tuscany, Sardinia and everywhere that "emergencies" have been designated–a move that means ordinary public bidding rules are suspended. And as it happens, Berlusconi has declared "emergencies" right and left. To remove garbage in Naples, to build lavish facilities for the summer 2009 G-8 summit: there were some forty-nine such "emergencies" in 2009 alone.
A full-blown government corruption scandal, still very much unfolding, is buffeting Italy and the Berlusconi government. White knight Bertolaso? It seems that in addition to his Roman residence he kept a pied-à-terre on the city’s expensive, elegant Via Giulia, the rent paid by big builder Diego Anemone, a man whose vast construction empire has profited greatly from deals made under emergency rules, and who, just for good measure, also hired Bertolaso’s wife as a consultant. Claudio Scajola, the minister for economic development? He had to resign for accepting ("without my knowledge," as he bizarrely claimed) 1.1 million euros, again from Anemone, to acquire and rehab an apartment with a Colosseum view. Then there was Angelo Balducci, a top aide in the prime minister’s office signing off on public contracts (he also held the prized Vatican title of Papal Gentleman). Now Balducci’s in jail, after numerous wiretaps pointed to gross irregularities that favored selected companies. And also in disgrace, after he was heard telephoning the Vatican choirmaster with precise requests about the sort of male choristers he wanted the choirmaster to procure. Other friends of Berlusconi and company in the Vatican? Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Archbishop of Naples, is under investigation on suspicions he sold a choice church-owned palazzo at one-third the market value to Pietro Lunardi, minister under the 2001-06 Berlusconi administration, in return for millions in Italian government funds to restore a prestigious Vatican-owned palazzo near Piazza di Spagna. "Enemies inside and outside the Church" had incriminated him, Sepe said at a press conference. Whatever that meant.
It took the special carabinieri unit investigating these crimes more than a year to amass the evidence, much of it based on 400,000 wiretapped phone conversations among a relatively small number of people. Only a few of those calls have so far come to light, but the contents have been devastating.
No surprise, then, that Berlusconi is currently battling to pass a tough new bill that would sharply limit wiretap orders (to a maximum of two and a half months) and impose stiff fines on newspapers that publish transcripts and jail sentences on the journalists responsible. This gag rule, which looked all set to pass a couple of weeks ago, has stirred massive protests from magistrates, journalists and ordinary Italians, and is currently stalled in Italy’s lower house, or Chamber of Deputies, where MPs must harmonize the versions passed by the Chamber and the Senate. Apart from the blow it would deliver to a free press, the bill would severely hamper anti-Mafia operations. Even some members of Berlusconi’s own party, particularly those allied with Chamber speaker Gianfranco Fini, don’t like it.
And so, in one of those weird about-faces that so often happen with Berlusconi, the left now finds itself backing greater police surveillance while the Berlusconi team whips up a lather about Italians’ sacred right to privacy. The man is nothing if not adept at turning the tables. He recently claimed (utterly falsely) that 7.5 million Italians have their phones tapped. The real number, according to the National Association of Magistrates, is no more than 35,000–possibly just 25,000–and most of them are members of organized crime gangs.