Italian prosecutors prepare possible charges based on Genoa bridge probe

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  • Disaster blamed on rupture of ninth pillar cables
  • Autostrade, SPEA and 69 people involved, probe says
  • No maintenance on ninth pillar cables in 51 years

MILAN, April 22 (Reuters) - Italian prosecutors are preparing possible charges against dozens of former employees of infrastructure group Atlantia (ATL.MI) after concluding an inquiry into a deadly motorway bridge collapse in 2018, a document filed by prosecutors on Thursday showed.

Former and current government officials may also face charges as a result of the probe, according to the document.

A road bridge operated by Atlantia's motorway unit Autostrade per l'Italia collapsed in the northern city of Genoa on Aug. 14, 2018, killing 43 people and laying bare the dire state of Italy's crumbling infrastructure.

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In a document on the probe's findings seen by Reuters, prosecutors said the collapse was triggered by the rupture of the load-bearing cables inside the stay of the bridge's ninth pillar, which were eaten away by a highly corrosive atmosphere over the 51 years of the bridge's life.

Managers at Atlantia units Autostrade per l'Italia and SPEA allegedly avoided proper checks of the state of the infrastructure and did not correct serious issues that started to emerge only a few years after the viaduct opened in 1967, the document showed.

"In 51 years of the bridge's life not the slightest maintenance work was carried out to reinforce the stays of the ninth pillar," the document said.

Between 1982 and the collapse in 2018, structural works on the viaduct cost 24.6 million euros and Autostrade paid for less than 2% of them, it added.

This situation "cannot be justified by the inadequacy of the necessary financial resources at Autostrade," prosecutors said, adding that the company ended in the black each year between 1999 and 2005.

The document said Autostrade's annual net income was at least 586 million euros in the period between 2005 and 2017, when the company distributed 80% or more of its profits to its shareholders.

During their 2-1/2 year probe Genoa prosecutors placed 69 individuals, including former Atlantia Chief Executive Giovanni Castellucci and the former head of Atlantia's engineering unit SPEA Antonino Galata, under investigation for suspected crimes including manslaughter and wilful disaster.

Former and current officials at the transport ministry allegedly failed to oversee necessary maintenance, prosecutors said.

Under Italian law, once an investigation has been closed, suspects have three weeks to respond. At that point, prosecutors can seek court authorisation to press charges or recommend shelving a case.

Atlantia, Autostrade and SPEA declined to comment on the issue. Lawyers representing Castellucci and Galata did not comment on the issue.

If confirmed, the lack of maintenance on the bridge would be "disconcerting", Transport Undersecretary Giancarlo Cancelleri said in a statement.

Cancelleri also said "the end of this long and complex phase of investigations is an important step towards establishing the truth," calling for a speedy trial.

Under Italian law, firms can be held responsible for their employees' actions.

Atlantia, controlled by the Benetton family, is in talks with a consortium of investors led by Italian state lender CDP to sell its 88% stake in Autostrade under a plan sponsored by the government to regain control of the motorway company.

Castellucci, who was behind Atlantia's international expansion, was ousted from the infrastructure group in late 2019 after 13 years at its helm.

Prosecutors in Genoa have started three other investigations linked to the bridge collapse revolving around allegations of falsified road safety reports, improper installation of anti-noise barriers and poor upkeep of road tunnels.

Autostrade per l'Italia, which counts Chinese fund Silk Road and Allianz (ALVG.DE) among its investors, runs half of Italy's 6,000 km (3,730 miles) of toll roads, generating a significant share of Atlantia's core earnings before the disaster.

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Reporting by Emilio Parodi; additional reporting by Francesca Landini; editing by Jason Neely

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