Digging for dirt

The story behind the clean hands campaign

Jeff Poole
November 15, 2007

In the 1990s Italy was home to a scandal that shook the very foundations of the country’s political and business worlds. An investigation, nicknamed Mani Pulite, or ‘Clean Hands’, uncovered a web of political bribery. In its wake, politicians, businessmen, and Vatican bank officials were arrested, resigned and even committed suicide. This massive campaign to uproot corruption forever changed the face of Italian politics. Political parties fell and new ones rose out of the resulting public outcry against the massive corruption termed Tangentopoli (‘Bribesville’).


Mani Pulite began in 1992 when judge Antonio Di Pietro had Mario Chiesa, a member of the Italian Socialist Party, arrested. This arrest on grounds of bribery set the stage for other judges to step up and join Di Pietro in his fight to uncover political corruption. The media quickly caught wind of this arrest and began a frenzy of coverage of the arrests that were to follow, alerting the public to its leaders’ follies. Head of the Italian Socialist Party, Bettino Craxi, made a statement assuring the enraged public that Chiesa was a splinter, or bad seed, of his party and that the corruption was not as widespread as the media had been speculating.


Arrests of politicians, businessmen and bank officials continued throughout the year, with more judges stepping forth to confront corruption. Yet these accusations were not without their own risk. The same year that Di Pietro began his campaign, two judges supporting him, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, were both murdered in separate bomb attacks. These crimes were later revealed to be backed by the Sicilian mafia, or Cosa nostra. This led to the arrest of Sicilian mafia boss Salvatore Riina, who was accused of bribing politicians among other nefarious acts.


Mani Pulite’s effects on the Italian political system were dramatic and far-reaching. In the ensuing years, prime ministers and presidents were accused on grounds of corruption. The government literally fell apart as Italians searched for what they considered honest leadership. Craxi, then prime minister, abandoned his political party and fled to Tunisia to avoid prosecution. This retreat of leadership caused the powerful Italian Socialist Party to dissolve into several smaller contingents.  Other political parties fractured as their members where charged by Di Pietro and his allies. 


Yet Di Pietro and other Italian judges did not stop with politicians. The business world was rocked when the second largest company in Italy, Enimont, was targeted. This company was a joint merger between the privately owned Montedison and the government energy company, Eni. After their merger, Montedison sold its shares back to the government, which were discovered to be overpriced by at least 30 percent. This led to the arrest of then president of Montedison, Gabriele Cagliari, on grounds of bribing politicians to inflate the value of his Enimont stock. After three months of awaiting trial, Cagliari committed suicide in his jail cell. Within weeks of Cagliari’s suicide, three other former and current top executives of Montedison took their lives.


Despite all the controversy surrounding the arrests, Di Pietro remained strong in his convictions to eliminate corruption in the Italian political system. Yet by the end of the 1990s he and his colleagues were able to convict only a small handful of politicians and businessmen. Di Pietro claimed this was due to the slow Italian judicial system and the statutory laws that allowed indicted parties to delay their trials long enough to exceed the statutory limits for convicting someone on corruption charges.


Even Di Pietro himself was not immune to accusations. In 1997 he was investigated for his activities while a judge. It was later discovered that the prosecutor was the brother of a man Di Pietro had previously convicted and the charges against him were subsequently dropped.


Di Pietro has since moved from the judicial realm and into politics. He is the current minister of Infrastructures.  In office, he is calling for governmental reforms, such as imposing term limits on political positions and a mandatory clean judicial record for candidates running for office, in hopes that these new laws will help Italy avoid corruption and improve its tarnished political reputation.

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