ROME (Reuters) - Italian businessman Manlio Cerroni thinks a monument would be a fitting recognition of his services to Rome. Instead, the 86-year-old, who spent 60 years building a global empire and a personal fortune on trash, is facing trial on a string of charges.
Italian prosecutors say Cerroni - “Il Supremo” to his aides - oversaw a web of companies and individuals colluding to defend his monopoly over trash disposal in and around the Italian capital, including his Malagrotta landfill, Europe’s largest, which closed last year after European Union authorities ruled it unfit to treat waste.
Cerroni’s lawyer, Giorgio Martellino, says his client denies all charges, which also include fraud and improper waste treatment, but declined to be interviewed.
Several local politicians from the Lazio region, of which Rome is the capital, are also due to stand trial for collusion.
Cerroni was earlier this year put under preventive detention at home, but has since been released on bail, on condition he doesn’t set foot in Rome, his lawyer said.
While being questioned, he told prosecutors: “You should build me a monument for everything I’ve done for this city,” according to a judicial source familiar with the questioning.
The European Commission takes a dim view of Italy’s waste industry. It estimates that trash is treated and disposed of unlawfully in 100 of Italy’s 250 official waste-management sites. Italian police estimate there are also 1,000 illegal sites.
In and around the city of Naples, for example, the Camorra organized crime group has since the 1990s taken over lucrative waste-management contracts, dumping trash from all over the country and other parts of Europe in unauthorized fields or landfills, according to testimony and documents from various legal cases. Industrial waste has often been illegally stored or burned, releasing toxins that have contaminated much of the area.
Last month, an Italian police officer who had spent many years in and around the so-called Land of the Fires - a vast area south of Naples where toxic trash has long been dumped and burned - died of a tumor that the Italian state officially recognized was related to his work there.
Rome, Italy’s biggest city, also has its trash problems.
Collection, treatment and disposal of its garbage has largely been in the hands of a small group of private owners - Cerroni and his associates - for decades, with public contracts rarely opened to competition or new entrants.
There are not enough sites to treat and dispose of the 1.775 million tons of trash the city produces every year, even though its residents pay among the highest trash-management taxes in the country.
Some is shipped to northern Italy or Spain for treatment.
Fearing a build-up of trash in the streets of the capital, the mayor of Rome recently ordered that Cerroni’s treatment and disposal sites continue to operate, even though prosecutors wanted them closed during their investigation.
It was back in 1946, after getting a law degree, that Cerroni first began his career in the unglamorous world of garbage, at a small company that handled waste disposal, including animal carcasses, according to his lawyer.
“In the 1950s and 60s, those of us who worked in the garbage business had trouble even finding wives, because we were considered trash ourselves,” Cerroni said during a hearing before Italy’s parliament years ago. “Only when the environmentalists came along did people say, ‘Hey! these people help our lives, too’.”
In 1960, Rome handed management of the city’s trash disposal to four small private companies, including Cecchini & Co, owned by Cerroni, according to a history of his business dealings that is part of the prosecutors’ arrest warrant. Cerroni eventually took over all four companies.
First working alone, and later with his two daughters, he gradually built up a business with revenues that media reports estimate at 2 billion euros. His closely held companies do not release financial figures.
Among his holdings are trash disposal companies or firms that build machines to treat trash in Sydney, Oslo, Abu Dhabi and Edmonton, according to a company website. In some cases, he owns the companies outright, in others he holds stakes.
Cerroni’s big break came in 1984 when the city of Rome decided to make Malagrotta, Rome’s main garbage dump, which Cerroni had bought.
Businesses in which he is the main shareholder are still partners in a consortium that runs the landfill and its waste-treatment machinery.
It was rewarding work - enough to buy a volleyball team, a local television station and a villa in a leafy neighborhood of Rome.
It also gave him access to politicians of all hues.
“I had relations with everyone; prime ministers, ministers, councilors. They couldn’t reject my proposals. They would ask me to find solutions,” Cerroni said in an interview published earlier this month in Rome daily Il Tempo.
“The person who decides here is him (Cerroni), no one else. And that’s the way politicians want it,” said Fabio Altissimi, a competitor, according to the transcript of a wire-tapped call that is part of prosecutors’ warrant for Cerroni. Altissimi, who is not under investigation, was not reachable for comment.
But in 2011, EU authorities came down hard on Cerroni’s biggest asset. In a letter to Rome that year, the European Commission warned that 100 trash disposal sites were illegal, because they did not pre-treat waste with chemicals that reduce their volume and toxicity, as required by European guidelines. It ruled that Malagrotta, the worst offender among the illegal sites, could no longer collect garbage. Two years later, in September 2013, it found the situation had not improved.
It ordered Italy to pay 61.5 million euros, plus a daily fine of 256,000 euros, until it complies with EU regulations, though neither fine has taken effect yet.
Though garbage no longer arrives in Malagrotta, the site is still brimming with mountains of trash up to 80 meters high. Prosecutors over the past two years have been investigating whether any toxic material has seeped into the water table.
According to the city of Rome’s plans, it will in 30 years be transformed into a park, with 340,000 trees.
“It will become Buonagrotta for the service that this place has rendered Rome,” Cerroni joked to the parliamentary hearing.
In their arrest warrant, prosecutors said Cerroni was the “undisputed master of a criminal organization” that kept the entrepreneur’s competitors at bay, giving him for decades a monopoly over the Lazio region’s trash disposal business.
Prosecutors said certain towns in the Lazio region would pay Cerroni’s companies a higher price for a disposal service that would turn garbage into high-quality refuse. Cerroni’s company would pocket the cash but not provide the extra service, they said.
The prosecutors’ documents allege that Cerroni used his political ties to exercise pressure on public officials to keep getting public contracts to treat trash in a town in Rome’s outskirts. They also allege that Cerroni-owned companies that convert trash into fuel inflated their charges.
Cerroni dismisses the charges with characteristic swagger.
“This is a conspiracy,” he said in the il Tempo interview. “They wanted to go after il Supremo, the man who even in Australia is considered to have no equal. When it comes to waste management, I am considered universally as the best in the world.”
Writing by Alessandra Galloni; Editing by Will Waterman