Oil-for-Food Scandal Brushes Against a Leading Italian Governor
The New York Times - 25/03/2005
The investigation into wide-scale corruption in the United Nations' oil-for-food program appears to be reaching into Italy, and brushing up against one of the most prominent politicians here, Roberto Formigoni, often mentioned as a potential candidate for prime minister.
Mr. Formigoni, governor of the wealthy Lombardy region, is not under any official inquiry. But in a nation with no shortage of corruption scandals or political intrigue, investigators are following a trail of abuses in the embattled program to some of his closest associates, and documents obtained by The New York Times and verified as authentic by Italian officials suggest that the path may veer uncomfortably close to him.
In his first sit-down interview with the foreign press since a journalist writing in Il Sole 24 Ore of Milan and The Financial Times of London fired a broadside of accusations against him in February, Mr. Formigoni denied any wrongdoing, saying he never accepted a drop of oil or a single dollar. He said Italy's Machiavellian political machines were behind the allegations, timed to hurt his bid in coming regional elections.
"I supported it as I believe most of the world supported it," Mr. Formigoni, 57, said of the United Nations program, which made an exception to an embargo on the sale of Iraqi oil during Saddam Hussein's rule, using the revenue to buy essential supplies for Iraqi citizens. "I judged this thing to be positive."
But a huge scandal has since cast a shadow over the $65 billion program. Paul A. Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, is leading an independent investigation for the United Nations into charges that the Hussein government used kickbacks and bribes to manipulate the oil sales.
Now Milan prosecutors, who are working with Mr. Volcker's investigators, suspect that some of the graft can be traced to Lombardy. They are examining documents from the archives of the Iraqi State Oil Marketing Organization Ministry, or SOMO, which suggest that Mr. Formigoni received vouchers worth 24 million barrels of discounted Iraqi oil.
The name of a Milan-based oil company, Costieri Genovesi Petroliferi, or Cogep, often appears next to Mr. Formigoni's name on those records, copies of which were made available to The New York Times. The owners of Cogep are under investigation in Milan regarding Iraqi oil. So is Marco Mazarino De Petro, a consultant to the Lombardy region whose name appears in signatures on oil-for-food contracts on behalf of Cogep.
Mr. De Petro, a former member of Italian Parliament and the president of a small air transport company owned by the regional government, was appointed Lombardy's coordinator of international relations in 1998, according to an official bulletin.
In the interview, Mr. Formigoni acknowledged being a close friend of Mr. De Petro's and having been best man at the wedding of Mr. De Petro's daughter. But he denied an allegation in the Italian press that Mr. De Petro acted as his personal business envoy in Iraq.
But a 1996 letter that Italian investigators believe was signed and sent by Mr. Formigoni to Tariq Aziz, who was then a deputy prime minister of Iraq, seems to suggest that Mr. De Petro played a crucial role in representing Mr. Formigoni and Lombardy in Iraq years before his official posting as the region's international relations coordinator.
"Mr. De Petro (you already know him, and he is the bearer of this letter) is once again in Baghdad," says the letter, which was on Mr. Formigoni's official stationery and emphasized his efforts to shift Italian public opinion in favor of Iraq, with which he expressed solidarity. "Please let Mr. De Petro be able to receive a 'mandate,' " it says, meaning a mandate to expedite his business on behalf of Italian companies in Iraq.
When presented with the letter, Mr. Formigoni denied that the signature was his, but a federal prosecutor helping to lead the Italian investigation said the letter appeared genuine, confirming a connection between the men. "It's clear," said the prosecutor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
When reached by telephone, Mr. De Petro said: "Everything I did was perfectly legitimate and legal. I represented Lombardy, but not in oil for food."
But Milan prosecutors are investigating Mr. De Petro's apparent involvement in the first oil-for-food contract awarded to Cogep in January 1998. On the contract's final page, a signature for Saddam Hassan, the executive director of SOMO, appears under the heading of seller, and a signature bearing Mr. De Petro's name appears on behalf of Cogep to buy 1.8 million barrels of oil.
Also raising questions is a June 13, 1998, fax sent from Mr. Hassan to the attention of "Mr. Marco" at Cogep. Investigators in Milan say they have no doubt that Marco De Petro was the intended recipient.
Another fax, written in broken English, is dated June 8, 1998, and addressed to his "excellency" Mr. Aziz. In it, Mr. Formigoni was identified as the sender.
"I know that SOMO is signing the new contracts," the fax reads. "Let me to remember to you the names of the Italian oil companies I pointed out to you. One is Cogep."
Mr. Formigoni said he had never seen the fax and did not remember sending it. Nevertheless, he added that Cogep was only one of about a dozen companies from Lombardy that had wanted to take part in the oil-for-food program, and that he was doing his duty as governor to point them out to Iraqi officials, who perhaps mistakenly believed that he had a personal stake in Cogep.
"All that followed was the responsibility of the companies," Mr. Formigoni said. "I will say right now, if the companies might have done something wrong, they have to answer for it."
When a co-owner of Cogep, Natalio Catanese, was reached by telephone, he said, "We don't know anything about this," referring to the fax sent to "Mr. Marco" at Cogep, and to the coupling of his company's name with Mr. Formigoni's in SOMO records. "The accusations are baseless."
In a country so hardened by scandals, political analysts are eager to see what impact, if any, the allegations will have on Mr. Formigoni. Many commentators have noted that the ambitious governor's vehement criticism of the oil embargo and American-led war in Iraq ran afoul of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who also leads the Forza Italia political party to which Mr. Formigoni belongs.
Tensions have increased between the men in recent weeks since an attempt by Mr. Formigoni to assert his independence from Mr. Berlusconi and increase his own visibility.
"He is certainly a contender to be prime minister in the post-Berlusconi era, and he certainly wants it," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a professor of political science at the University of Florence. "But if some kind of evidence can be shown connecting him to these collaborators, it will tarnish his image."
Mr. Formigoni said he believed that was exactly what his political opponents were trying to do: smear him before important regional elections in April test his popularity.
"It is obvious that it annoys some people that Formigoni is very strong," Mr. Formigoni said. "I don't see any other motive for this concentration of attention on only one single case. Why is it awaking every type of curiosity"