| MILAN, Italy
MILAN, Italy May 23 They usually met in Milan
although on Wednesdays they lunched in Rome. But for the seven
men arrested on suspicion of corruption, the menu was always the
same, prosecutors said: alleged bribes to obtain building
contracts for Italy's Expo 2015 world fair.
Milan prosecutors are investigating whether the group of
former politicians and entrepreneurs rigged contracts for Expo
and other public tenders, including a 67 million euro contract
to build facilities for next year's Universal Exhibition,
according to a copy of the arrest warrant seen by Reuters.
Details of the case, revealed in the prosecutors' warrant,
have reminded Italians of the 1990s, when a wave of high-profile
bribery cases landed top businessmen and politicians in jail and
broke-up Italy's post-war party system.
Two decades later, despite promises from the new prime
minister, Matteo Renzi, that he will invigorate the economy,
business is still often murky, with some of Italy's most
prominent companies under investigation.
Corruption still exists in Italy, lawyers and prosecutors
say, because many of the old offenders are still around - in
some cases well past the normal retirement age - and Italian
society typically takes a forgiving attitude to their crimes.
Despite repeated attempts to clean up politics and business,
Italy still ranks 69 out of 177 countries in Transparency
International's corruption index, below most European nations.
Two of the people under investigation in the Expo case -
74-year-old Gianstefano Frigerio, a former local leader of
Italy's Christian Democrats, and Primo Greganti, 70, former
member of the defunct Communist Party - served jail time in the
early 1990s after being convicted for corruption and illicit
political party financing.
They both denied wrongdoing in the Expo case when questioned
by prosecutors, according to people close to the investigation.
Frigerio had no comment, his lawyer said, while Greganti's
lawyer said his client denied any wrongdoing.
"In Italy corruption is above all a cultural problem," says
Raffaele Cantone, a magistrate who heads Italy's anti-bribery
authority and who was put in charge of the Expo 2015
organization after the recent arrests.
"Those who have been involved in corruption cases, once they
have served their sentence, are welcomed back with open arms by
the business world, politicians, by the entire society."
Cantone says the Expo case shows how corruption in Italy has
evolved over the past 25 years. In the case of the so-called
"Clean Hands" trials of the early 1990s, political parties were
the centre of kickback schemes linked to public works contracts.
"Today politics has a secondary role. The real novelty is
that we see a web of business intermediaries that want to get
their hands on the bribe money. We still have political parties,
of course, but they are a means rather than an end," says
Cantone, who is famous in Italy for his investigations against
the Naples-based organized crime group, the Camorra.
Among cases currently winding through Italian courts is an
investigation into possible kickbacks for contracts to rebuild
the city of L'Aquila, hit by an earthquake in 2009.
Prosecutors are also investigating defence giant
Finmeccanica and oil services group Saipem
for alleged corruption linked to international contracts. Both
companies deny any wrongdoing.
The Expo arrests are a political problem for Renzi, who was
forced to hurry to Milan last week to renew his commitment to
the international fair.
He acknowledged the Expo investigation would hurt his party
and help the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement in European
elections this weekend. Five Star's leader, Beppe Grillo, says
the fair is a source of criminal activity.
But Renzi said Expo would go ahead despite the
investigation. "We need to stop the thieves, not Expo," Renzi
said during his visit.
The stakes are high. Italy is hoping to attract 20 million
visitors to Milan for the fair, a feast of futuristic pavilions
and other amenities from more than 140 countries and centred on
the theme of nutrition.
Local and central governments have earmarked 1.3 billion
euros ($1.85 billion) to help fund infrastructure and other
public works at what has become Italy's biggest building site.
The fair could boost Italy's economy 10 billion euros and
add nearly 200,000 jobs, according to the Expo organizers.
The Expo investigation has alarmed struggling local
businessmen, anxious not to lose a big opportunity as the
country emerges from its deepest recession in 70 years.
"Expo represents the hope that Italy may be able to overcome
this long recession. We must not let anyone steal such hope,"
said Carlo Sangalli, leader of business lobby Confcommercio.
Investigators began looking into possible mishandling of
Expo 2015 contracts last year when they got a tip that Maltauro
SpA, a construction group, had received preferential treatment
in the awarding of public contracts for the fair. Frigerio and
his associates acted as middleman between Maltauro and public
officials, prosecutors believe, according to the arrest warrant.
To influence public officials in favour of Maltauro,
Frigerio would hold regular meetings at the Centro Culturale
Tommaso Moro, a charity based in an elegant early 1900s building
in Milan, prosecutors wrote in the arrest warrant.
On most Wednesdays, the meetings moved to the pricy Cesarina
restaurant in Rome, not far from the principal setting of
Fellini's classic 1960 movie La Dolce Vita, a satire on the
affluence and materialism of post-war Rome.
Frigerio got his break in October 2013, when he managed to
arrange a meeting with Angelo Paris, procurement manager of Expo
2015, prosecutors wrote in the arrest warrant.
At the meeting on Oct. 29 at Milan's expensive Westin Palace
hotel, Paris indicated he would be willing to rig the bids in
exchange for career advancement and a way into influential
political circles in Rome, according to the warrant.
"I can give you more work than you ever dreamt of. I don't
want any (money) for me. I just want tranquility, so that no one
will bother me for the next seven or eight years. I can give you
all the contracts you want," Paris told one of Frigerio's aides,
according to a transcript of a conversation taped by prosecutors
and included in the arrest warrant.
According to prosecutors, Paris then allowed several
companies, including Maltauro, to have privileged information
about the tenders before these were made public. Enrico
Maltauro, owner of Maltauro SpA, is under investigation and was
arrested this month as part of the case. Maltauro's lawyer Paolo
Grasso said his client had partially acknowledged his
involvement in a kick-back scheme, but would not give details.
Paris, who is under investigation and was arrested earlier
this month, has resigned from Expo SpA. His lawyer, Luca Troyer,
said Paris was not part of any group organising a kick-back
system, but that he "admits to making mistakes."
(Additional reporting by Manuela D'Alessandro, Editing by