Arrest order issued for head of Italy's Olivetti Tycoon ensnared in bribery scandal

October 31, 1993|By New York Times News Service

ROME -- Magistrates ordered the arrest yesterday on bribery charges of Carlo De Benedetti, head of the Olivetti computer company and among the most senior and best-known Italian tycoons to be ensnared in the country's huge corruption scandal.

The industrialist, once a symbol of Italian business self-confidence and energy, was traveling outside Italy when Rome magistrates issued the arrest warrant. A spokesman for his holding company, Compagnie Industriali Riunite, said he is expected to return to the country Tuesday after a long holiday weekend.

The arrest warrant adds to the controversy swirling around Mr. De Benedetti, who is already appealing a six-year prison term on fraud charges unrelated to the newest accusations.

The new charges against him, moreover, mean that virtually all of Italy's top private concerns, as well as most of its huge state sector, have been implicated in the scandal.

Mr. De Benedetti, 58, has publicly acknowledged that his company paid bribes to politicians, but he has insisted that the pressure for illicit political contributions in return for government contracts was so great that he would have been forced out of business in Italy if his companies had not paid up.

His lawyer, Marco De Luca, registered surprise at the issuing of an arrest warrant, saying his client had "recently shown his willingness to cooperate with the magistrates, so I am puzzled as to why they should want to arrest him."

Since February 1992, more than 3,000 politicians and businessmen have been implicated in the scandal involving the systematic payment of billions of dollars of bribes in return for government contracts.

The so-called "mani pulite" -- clean hands -- investigation has discredited an entire generation of business and political leaders and fueled demands for reform.

Magistrates declined to give details about the new charges against Mr. De Benedetti, but Rome news reports said they involve bribes of at least $7 million paid to the state postal authority in return for contracts.

Last May, Mr. De Benedetti was placed under investigation after volunteering to magistrates in Milan that companies under his control had paid bribes worth some $13 million dollars during the 1980s and early 1990s to win government contracts. The admission was a direct reversal of previous public denials of misdoing, made to both shareholders and journalists.

While he maintained that he had not personally handed over bribe money, he said his companies would have been squeezed out of government business if they had not succumbed to what he termed a system of "menaces and extortion" by political party bosses that had been "nothing short of racketeering."

But his critics have suggested that, like other businesses, his companies were willing partners in the scandal.

Mr. De Benedetti has always cast himself as something of a maverick in Italian business. He is a Jew in a largely Roman Catholic industrial establishment and he has described himself as one always ready to challenge the cozy arrangements that have traditionally linked big business and government.

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