Wiretaps Unfold Italian Tycoons' Dirty Laundry

Times Staff Writer

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.

"Maybe we are the country where tapping is most used," said Armando Spataro, a veteran prosecutor who has been going after suspected terrorists for years, "but we are also a country with a great many dangerous criminal organizations."

Some Italians wonder now whether the tool is being abused.

"It is a little bit out of control," said Tana De Zulueta, a leftist senator and member of the parliamentary Human Rights Commission. She does not oppose wiretaps but wants their fruits handled more discreetly.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi weighed in on the banking scandal, saying he was shocked -- shocked! -- at the revelations of private conversations. Interrupting his summer holiday at his opulent estate in Sardinia, he demanded laws to tighten wiretaps' use. His horror, directed more at the content than the practice, was manifested after his own name came up in some of the tapes.

"We are not a civilized country if we can read in a newspaper what a lady tells her boyfriend or husband," Berlusconi said.

In calling for restrictions, Berlusconi said such surveillance should be limited to terrorism and Mafia cases, and he advocated jail terms of up to 10 years for anyone who leaked or published wiretap transcripts.

Central bank Gov. Antonio Fazio would probably agree with Berlusconi's call for limits.

He is not the target of a criminal investigation but suddenly finds his 40-year career on the line because of comments he and his wife, Cristina Rosati, made in what they thought was the privacy of their home. Little did they dream their line was being tapped.

Transcripts suggest Fazio, 68, may have favored Fiorani and the Italian investors over a major Dutch bank, even though his position, which is a lifetime appointment, requires him to serve as a neutral arbitrator.

The conversations between the two men are familiar, chatty. "Faced with our threatening response," Fiorani tells Fazio, whom he calls Tony, "the prospects are looking good." "We cannot afford a single misstep now," Fazio responds.

Later, Fazio tells Fiorani, ahead of any public announcement, that the deal to take over the other bank has succeeded.

"Tony, I'm overwhelmed with emotion, I have goose bumps," Fiorani says. "Thank you, thank you. Tony, I would kiss you on the forehead if I could."

In other transcripts, it is not Fazio but his wife, Rosati, who is having cozy, late-night talks with Fiorani.

"It's going fine ... there are no problems," she tells him after he has fretted about the progress in the bank battle.

What comes across in Rosati's conversations is the picture of a wife far more involved in the inner workings of Italy's top financial institutions than is normal. Rosati can be heard advising, scolding -- one minute offering intimate reassurances to a man not her husband and the next plotting petty revenge against anyone who crosses him.

In one of her conversations, she is heard talking to a priest.

Another target of the investigation was Stefano Ricucci, an upstart Roman who made a fortune in real estate speculation and whose efforts now to buy into established Italian businesses have roiled the traditional elite. He is regarded as one of a new breed of nouveaux riches, the kind who marry starlets and live ostentatiously.

Ricucci, 43, is heard discussing business in salty street slang that, to many Italians, confirms his lowbrow roots.

Complaining that prosecutors are holding up his efforts to take over the bank, he says, "It's not like we tortured a child." Of special delight to voyeurs was a telephone text message sent to him by his new wife, Anna Falchi, an actress and pinup model.

"I am the happiest woman in the world," she gushes, "because I have you MY GREAT LOVE I LOOOVE YOU, got it?"

All of the people involved in the bank takeover scandal have denied wrongdoing, or refused public comment, and the debate over wiretapping -- when, who and how much -- goes on.

Evidence from wiretaps was used in the "Clean Hands" upheaval of the early 1990s, when corruption brought down the government and most political parties, and again this year, when Italian prosecutors drew up arrest warrants for 19 CIA operatives accused of kidnapping a radical Muslim cleric in Milan.

"If we can't use wiretapping, it would be tragic," said Palermo-based Judge Silvana Saguto, who has used the technique to catch Mafia fugitives and drug traffickers. "It is very important to listen to their conversations and arrest the criminals involved."

Associates of Berlusconi have suggested that the transcripts were leaked (maybe even doctored) by a judiciary hoping to embarrass the prime minister and his economically powerful right-wing friends.

De Zulueta, the leftist senator, said the restrictions Berlusconi proposed would hamper other important investigations -- into government corruption, for example. And Spataro, the prosecutor, said checks were already in place to prevent abuses, such as time limits on authorization of the taps.

Rosati might have had the best solution.

In one of her last recorded conversations, she tells a friend who has called, "Let's be careful, it's better to speak in person."

The phone, she says, is not safe.

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