VENICE, Italy (AP) — The mayor of Venice and more than 30 other people were arrested Wednesday in a sweeping corruption investigation related to the construction of underwater barriers to protect the historic lagoon city from flooding. It was the latest in a series of bribery probes into major public works projects in Italy.
Mayor Giorgio Orsoni was placed under house arrest, accused of illegally financing political parties, prosecutors said. More than 30 others were accused of illicit party financing, corruption and fiscal fraud, among other charges.
The arrests stemmed from a three-year investigation that led to the arrest last summer of the head of the consortium building the ambitious but long-delayed system of so-called Moses barriers. Authorities say 25 million euros ($34 million) was diverted abroad to bribe politicians.
“The investigation shows that a great portion of the funds was used to finance political forces at the city, regional and national level, and corrupt high-level public officials,” prosecutors Luigi Delpino and Carlo Nordio said Wednesday.
It marked the most high-profile of a spate of unrelated corruption investigations, mostly involving bribery or embezzlement accusations, that have implicated public officials and former high-ranking government ministers. They have revolved around some of the biggest Italian public works projects under way, including the Milan world’s fair, Expo 2015, and an Italian-funded water project in Iraq. Most recently, a former interior minister was accused of helping a businessman flee Italy to escape a mafia association sentence.
While these recent cases have involved individuals allegedly enriching themselves, the Venice investigation allegedly involves the illicit financing of political parties, drawing immediate comparisons to the “Clean Hands” anti-corruption investigations of the 1990s. Those probes uncovered systematic kickbacks from businessmen to Italian politicians and other public officials and resulted in the toppling of an entire political class.
Wednesday’s arrests put more pressure on Premier Matteo Renzi to take action, after his appointment of an anti-corruption czar earlier this year. Over the weekend, the European Commission flagged the deep-rooted problem of corruption as an issue hampering investment and economic renewal in Italy, which ranked 69th in Transparency International’s perceived level of public sector corruption last year — behind Montenegro and just ahead of Kuwait.
Named after the biblical figure who parted the Red Sea, the Moses barriers are designed to be raised to prevent flooding of Venice’s architectural treasures, including St. Mark’s Square, when an exceptionally high tide is expected. The first of the Moses barriers was installed last year.
The project, which will cost more than 4 billion euros, had been expected to be operational by 2014.
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