December 20, 2017 / 10:28 AM / a year ago

Former Italian bank CEO deals blow to close Renzi ally

ROME (Reuters) - The former chief of Unicredit said on Wednesday that a close ally of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had asked him in 2014 about the possibility of his bank buying a troubled smaller lender where her father worked.

FILE PHOTO - UniCredit Chief Executive Officer Federico Ghizzoni smiles during an event to launch a new Spanish office at the stock exchange in Madrid, Spain, May 23, 2016. REUTERS/Susana Vera

The remarks by Federico Ghizzoni to a parliamentary commission are likely to cause embarrassment to cabinet undersecretary Maria Elena Boschi, and, by extension, to both Renzi and the ruling Democratic Party (PD).

Ghizzoni said Boschi had asked him in a one-to-one meeting “if it was possible for Unicredit to consider buying or intervening in (Banca) Etruria”.

Boschi, whose father was on the board of the bank, has always denied making any such request.

The parliamentary commission, which was set up in September to look into the collapse of 10 Italian banks in the past two years, has become a focal point of political campaigning ahead of a national election expected to be held in March.

So far, the commission has put the PD on the defensive, showing that Boschi held several meetings with bankers and regulators to try to save the lender based in her home town, allowing the opposition to allege a conflict of interest.

In a book published this year, the former director of newspaper Corriere della Sera said Boschi had asked Ghizzoni to look into the possibility of buying Banca Etruria, which eventually had to be rescued by the state.

Boschi denied the report and threatened legal action against the journalist.

In answer to questions from the parliamentary panel, Ghizzoni said Boschi’s request that Unicredit consider buying Etruria did not impair the bank’s ability to make an autonomous decision, and added that “personally I did not feel pressured.”

Boschi said in a tweet after his comments that she had exerted no pressure on Ghizzoni but had only requested information.

Opposition politicians called on her to resign.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League, said the whole government should step down. His coalition partner Giorgio Meloni, leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party, said Ghizzoni’s words laid “a tombstone on the credibility of Renzi and Boschi.”

Ghizzoni said that when he met Boschi Unicredit was already considering investing in Banca Etruria and had met with its managers, but it eventually decided not to do so.

He said that in January 2015, a month after meeting Boschi, he was contacted by another close Renzi ally, Marco Carrai, who asked him if he had made a decision on Banca Etruria, to which he answered that he would tell the Tuscan bank directly.

Ghizzoni said Carrai, who had no formal government role, wrote to him in an email: “I have been asked to push you along”, on the Etruria question. Ghizzoni said Carrai did not say who had asked him to write the mail, and Ghizzoni did not ask him.

Alessandro Di Battista, a prominent lawmaker from the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement which leads in opinion polls, tweeted that Renzi, Boschi and Carrai were “an indecent clan which has occupied the state only for their personal interests.”

In November 2015, Italy rescued Banca Etruria and three other small lenders from bankruptcy, writing off the value of their shares and junior bonds and drawing 3.7 billion euros from a deposit-guarantee fund financed by the banks.

Reporting by Giuseppe Fonte; Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Crispian Balmer

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