Throwing The Bums Out

The San Vittore prison in Milan may not be the most beautiful of Italy's landmarks, but these days it is certainly the most notorious. Television crews keep a round-the-clock vigil on its high red walls. Crowds gather quickly in the street outside whenever the police radio flashes the code message "Mike Papa." That stands for Operazione Mani Pulite--Operation Clean Hands-and it means that yet another of Milan's high and mighty is on the way to jail, caught by the city's prosecuting magistrates in an ever-widening anti-corruption dragnet. When police cars arrive, sirens blaring, onlookers jostle to see which well-heeled politician or businessman sits handcuffed in the back seat this time. Sometimes the crowds cheer. Sometimes they throw coins and shout "Thieves!" It has become the lifestyle of Milan's rich and famous. "The people you used to see at La Scala on opening night you now see at San Vittore," says Roberto Mongini, a Christian Democrat who admits taking kickbacks and has spent time in both places lately.

At the moment, 25 prominent Italian politicians and businessmen are in custody at San Vittore, some crammed in filthy isolation cells that still hold Red Brigade terrorists. Among them are Fiat financial director Francesco Mattioli, the huge auto firm's third highest-ranking official, and Enzo Carra, the Christian Democrats' former press secretary, who maintain their innocence. Giovanni Manzi, the former head of the Milan airports and a Socialist, was arrested at his vacation home in the Dominican Republic. Scores of others-a veritable who's who of Italy's political and business elite-have also spent time in custody since Operation Clean Hands got underway more than a year ago. The disclosures of greed and corruption have created Italy's biggest national scandal in modern times-and have shaken the country's political system to its foundations.

Most astonishing is the scandal's scope. At least 906 people, including one fifth of the Italian Parliament's 630 deputies, have received an avviso di garanzia-the dreaded notification that goes to those under investigation by the magistrates. Last month former prime minister Bettino Craxi quit as head of the Socialist Party after magistrates served him with at least seven separate notices of investigation. Five days later Milan's mayor resigned because half his city council was under investigation. Meanwhile, investigations continue into the death of Sergio Castellari, a top state administrator caught up in a scandal surrounding a joint venture between two chemical companies.

The shake-up began without fanfare-as a mundane investigation into alleged kickbacks at a municipal nursing home in Milan. A local businessman named Luca Magni, who had a cleaning contract at the home, complained that he was being forced to pay a 10 percent kickback, amounting to half his profits, to Mario Chiesa, a Socialist politician who ran the home. Chiesa quickly found himself jailed in San Vittore, the first of many politicians in Milan to be held. Like so many of them, Chiesa claimed he was only collecting the funds on behalf of his party. But it was also clear that some of the money ended up in his own pockets, as it may have with some of the others. Eventually Chiesa turned state's evidence and fingered other party officials in what became a widening web of mutual incriminations. Investigators now believe that politicians have routinely demanded kickbacks of as much as 10 percent on every public-works project in the country since the 1970s.

Though petty bribery has long been a way of life in Italy, many were shocked by the sheer scale of the corruption uncovered by Clean Hands. Individual bribes ran as high as $3.1 million. The Luigi Einaudi Institute, a research center in Turin, estimated that the tangenti-the "cut," as bribes and kickbacks are delicately termed-increased public spending by $3 billion to $4 billion in 1991 alone and accounted for up to 15 percent of Italy's $100 billion budget deficit that year. "When we manage to sink our knife under the crust of official records, the rot often oozes out," said one magistrate.

Most of the cases look airtight. The abuses usually have been so transparent that 90 percent of the politicians arrested have talked freely, once confronted with the evidence against them. Roberto Mongini, the Christian Democrat who confessed to taking kickbacks, wrote a book called "The Unpunished." In it he says extortion came naturally to his fellow politicians. "Anyone who had access to the levers of power learned quickly," he says.

The widening scandal has accelerated calls for political reform. Investigating magistrates have asked Parliament to lift the immunity from prosecution of 127 parliamentarians. Parliament has grudgingly lifted immunity in a few cases, but public pressure has grown so intense that others seem sure to follow. The crusading magistrates who began Clean Hands have been transformed into national heroes. In a televised corruption hearing last month, magistrate Antonio Di Pietro drew a prime-time audience of 8 million, ahead of both Tom Cruise and Sophia Loren. Young people have begun wearing GO DI PIETRO T shirts, and discos even host Di Pietro nights, which raise money for civic causes.

Meanwhile, the arrests go on-at such a pace that some magistrates have begun wondering whether they've gone too far. "I'm going to quit being a judge," said Orazio Savia, the magistrate who questioned Castellari before his apparent suicide. (While police say Castellari took his own life, ex-aides have linked him to arms sales to Iran and Iraq in the 1980s and say he was murdered because he knew too much.) The Italian cabinet last week passed an emergency decree allowing politicians to escape jail by repaying triple what they took and resigning from public life.

Some politicians complain, but there's not much they can do. Former foreign minister Gianni De Michelis, who has received notices from magistrates in Milan and Rome and also faces charges in Venice, is among them. "People like Di Pietro are suggesting the entire political body should solve the problem by committing collective suicide," he says. "They're speaking a dangerous language. The control rods have been pulled out of the reactor; a China syndrome has started in public life." It's a chain reaction, certainly-one that seems bound to change Italy's graft-ridden political system permanently, and for the better.