World News

Italy hit by new corruption scandal over migrant centres

ROME (Reuters) - Italian police said they arrested 44 people on Thursday suspected of being part of a network of corrupt politicians, officials and business people in Rome accused of rigging public contracts to manage migrant reception centres.

The arrests follow the discovery of a vast system of corruption in the Rome city government last year -- a case dubbed “Mafia Capital” which prompted the city hall to ask the national anti-corruption authority to investigate a list of suspect public contracts.

The latest arrests were the result of further investigations linked to the Mafia Capital scandal.

As well as the 44 people arrested, warrants were also issued against another 21 people in the area around Rome, L’Aquila in central Italy and Catania and Enna in Sicily.

The investigation uncovered a system designed to ensure a cartel won lucrative contracts to manage migrant reception centres, exploiting the growing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

The highest profile figure caught up in the Mafia Capital scandal was the former mayor of Rome Gianni Alemanno, who resigned from his offices in the right wing Brothers of Italy party last year.

But the case, which has affected politicians across the political spectrum, prompted Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to place the whole local organisation of his centre-left Democratic Party (PD) in Rome under special administration.

Renzi avoided any direct comment on the latest arrests but made a pointed reference for the need for honesty in politics.

“A solid country is one that fights corruption, as is happening in Italy by sending people who steal to prison,” he said at a news conference with visiting Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

The migrant centres, often run on contract by cooperative social organisations, have proved a rich source of income for unscrupulous operators as the Mediterranean migrant boat crisis has intensified, leaving authorities struggling to deal with the tens of thousands of arrivals.

“We need to stop the boat departures and stop the public tenders immediately,” Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant Northern League party said following the latest arrests.

The case has underlined the persistent problem of political corruption in Italy, which ranked 69 out of 177 countries in the latest index by Transparency International, the global anti-corruption group.

Police said “Mafia Capital” was based around a network running back over many years in Rome involving local politicians, business people and criminals linked to violent neo-fascist groups active in the 1970s and 1980s.

They said the cartel had been able to secure “significant economic benefits” by fixing public contracts to manage migrant reception centres and excluding rival bidders.

Massimo Carminati, a one-eyed former member of a far-right group and Salvatore Buzzi, head of a cooperative that helped reintegrate former prisoners into society are accused of being at the centre of the network and both were arrested last year. Their lawyers have denied the accusations against them.

In addition to the “Mafia Capital” case last year, there were also high profile scandals around the award of public contracts for the Milan Expo and the Venice flood barrier corporation.

Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Toby Chopra