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.

Berlusconi’s haste to pass his gag rule (which would, among other things, bar any further publication of those incriminating phone calls) belies an evident concern about the unfolding scandal, which has already stirred discontent among his voters. Once upon a time, politicians took bribes for the party and only secondarily enriched themselves. Today, prosecutors say, graft is exquisitely personal, a politician’s ticket to join the billionaires club. But with Italy trapped in a long recession, businesses going bust and more layoffs every day, popular anger at Berlusconi and his cronies is growing. "Vote for me and you can be as rich as I am," his message implicitly promised. The lie is more obvious every day.

It has now been almost twenty years since Tangentopoli, the huge "Bribesville" corruption scandal, blazed across Italy, reducing the two major ruling political parties, the Socialists and the Christian Democrats, to cinders. It revealed a system of bribes and kickbacks under which nearly every major Italian company was paying off politicians and tax authorities–for contracts, for "access," for benevolent treatment. Popular disgust destroyed all the major parties except the former Communists and stoked great cynicism about Italy’s political class. However, that cynicism didn’t extend to the corruptors–the businessmen–and Berlusconi, who chose the moment to found a new political party and run for office, becoming prime minister in early 1994, was the beneficiary. He campaigned on his reputation as a wealthy and successful entrepreneur, styling himself as the spirit of a new Italy, the executive the country needed to take things in hand. Of course he, too, had been caught paying bribes to the politicians, but that was conveniently forgotten. Later he would claim the magistrates ("Communists") were persecuting him.

Far from being the spirit of a new Italy, however, Berlusconi was deeply indebted to the old. He founded his explicitly anti-Communist party Forza Italia in the winter of 1993, when the former Communists, the only political formation that wasn’t much touched by corruption charges, looked certain to win elections. Berlusconi immediately enrolled Christian Democratic and Socialist functionaries and inherited many of their voters, as well as the Vatican’s blessing. And various Mafia pentiti, or turncoats, have testified to ties between Berlusconi’s closest aide and Forza Italia founder, Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, who is a native of Sicily, and another of Italy’s powers, Cosa Nostra. On June 29 Dell’Utri, who was sentenced to nine years for Mafia association in 2004, saw that sentence reduced to seven by a Sicilian appeals court. In effect, the court rejected the prosecutor’s charge that Dell’Utri served as an intermediary with Cosa Nostra during the 1990s, when Berlusconi moved into politics. In other words, there was no firm proof that the known Mafia ties his aide had in the 1970s and ’80s were still active when Berlusconi founded Forza Italia in 1993.

The key to many of the troubles that plague Italy today lies in the years 1992-93, when Cosa Nostra for a time became unusually aggressive, assassinating two leading anti-mafia prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. In 1993 the Mafia, for the first time ever, deliberately attacked "civilians," setting off bombs outside museums and a church in Milan, Florence and Rome and killing ten bystanders altogether.

Recently Italy’s current top anti-Mafia prosecutor, Pietro Grasso, acknowledged that he believed those attacks were carried out in order to indentify a new "interlocutor," a political force that could replicate Cosa Nostra’s cozy relationship with the ailing Christian Democrats. Grasso also suggested that some "entity" outside the Mafia had helped to pilot its actions. His comments came as prosecutors in Palermo and Caltanissetta were investigating statements by several Mafiosi that one or more (rogue?) secret service agents were involved in the attacks of the early 1990s and hints that two police officers who died in mysterious circumstances after foiling a failed bomb attack on Falcone in 1989 had been murdered. At the time, Falcone suggested that attack had been the work of "sophisticated minds," that is, of "hidden powers capable of orienting Cosa Nostra’s decisions." After the Dell’Utri appeals decision, a "moderate" in Berlusconi’s own party, parliamentary anti-Mafia committee chairman Giuseppe Pisanu, spoke of "a convergence of interests" between the Mafia and "Freemasons, business and politics." Today, he said, "Cosa Nostra has perhaps given up trying to bargain as equals with the state, but it certainly hasn’t given up on politics."

But perhaps the most disturbing comment of all came from Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who was prime minister in 1993-94 and later president of the Republic–a highly respected figure and a man who weighs his words. In a recent interview with the daily La Repubblica, Ciampi spoke of how the telephone lines went down in the prime minister’s office just minutes after the 1993 Mafia bomb exploded in Rome. "I feared we were one step away from a coup d’état," he said. "I thought so then, and believe me, I continue to think so today."

A "veil of mystery" lies over who may have piloted those bombings, Ciampi said. Will Italians ever know the truth? Giancarlo De Cataldo, a magistrate and author of a chilling novel about that period, Nelle mani giuste (In the Right Hands), has studied the relevant police and court records at length. Despite all the evidence–which may never be hard enough to make convictions stick, he fears–the only way to arrive at the "ultimate truth" would be something like a parliamentary truth and reconciliation commission, he said. "Italy may finally have to choose between justice and knowing the truth," he believes.

Back in Italy after a week abroad, Berlusconi put on a tough face and made it clear he wanted his anti-wiretap bill passed before the August break–or else. But there were other, more urgent problems. On July 5 Aldo Brancher, a friend-of-Berlusconi just appointed minister–without portfolio or any apparent duties–had to step down after seventeen days in office when it became clear he had only been named to allow him to invoke a rule that permits ministers to avoid court appearances by citing pressing government duties. The next day Brancher was on trial in Milan, accused of profiting from a shady bank takeover, another scandal whose tendrils may reach out to touch Berlusconi. On Friday July 9, print, news service, radio, TV and Internet journalists went on strike here to protest the gag rule. If the prime minister does somehow manage to get that bill passed quickly, his crooked cronies–not to mention Cosa Nostra and Italy’s other mafias–will surely be happy to hear it.