Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has been caught up in the corruption investigation shaking the Vatican since police raids on the Holy See earlier this month.
Driving the news
The Financial Times reported Sunday that lawyer Conte, who was sworn in on June 1 2018, was hired as a freelance expert in May that year to give a legal opinion for a consortium, Fiber 4.0, seeking to win control of Retelit, a small Italian telecommunications firm.
The lead investor in Fiber 4.0 was Athena Global Opportunities, a Luxembourg-incorporated fund backed entirely by $200 million from the Vatican Secretariat of State.
Vatican insiders say that at least a portion of that $200 million, kept away from Vatican regulators in Swiss bank accounts, came from ‘Peter’s Pence’ donations from Catholics around the world intended for the poor and needy.
Some of the $200 million was also invested by the Secretariat of State in luxury London real estate.
It is that purchase of those Chelsea apartments that Vatican police are continuing to investigate, having found “serious indications of embezzlement, fraud, abuse of office [and] money laundering” in the transactions.
Police raided offices of the Secretariat of State and of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority (AIF) October 1 in connection with the investigation.
Five Vatican workers were subsequently suspended from their employment over the probe.
Prosecutors uncover “serious indications” of embezzlement, fraud, money laundering in Vatican investments
PM Conte’s office issued a statement Monday responding to the FT‘s accusations.
“It should be noted that Mr Conte only gave a legal opinion and was not aware of, and was not required to know, the fact that some investors were connected to an investment fund supported by the Vatican and now at the centre of an investigation”, the statement said.
Conte’s office also denied conflict of interest accusations over the fact that his government applied so-called “golden power” rules to Retelit on June 8 2018 – just a week after coming to power – to ensure the telco remained in Italian ownership.
Conte had argued for golden power control over the firm in his freelance opinion.
“There is no conflict of interest”, Conte’s office stated, adding that the new PM formally abstained from the cabinet decision on golden power for Retelit.
Why it matters
The Conte connection is the latest chapter in a new ‘Vatileaks III’ case that has raised the suspicions of Vatican police that the Secretariat of State is misusing millions of dollars in charity funds, not least by hiding the money away in secret bank accounts.
As well as the five suspended Vatican employees, the scandal so far has also cost the job of former Vatican police chief Domenico Giani.
But the Vatican anti-money laundering watchdog AIF denied last week that neither its suspended director, Tommaso Di Ruzza, nor any other employee had engaged in any wrongdoing.
That denial only raised suspicions further about the role played in the suspicious investments by former Secretariat of State ‘number 2’ Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who is thought to have personally authorised the Chelsea property investment.