DEFENSE STARTS CLOSING AT BRIBETRIAL IN ITALY

Byline: Samantha Conti

MILAN — Lawyers for the designers and fashion executives on trial for bribing tax police began their closing statements Friday, arguing that their clients were victims — not agents — of corruption.
In long, emotional speeches, defense attorneys for Versace chief executive Santo Versace; Gianfranco Ferre; Ferre’s managing director, Gianfranco Mattioli, and Krizia’s owner and designer, Mariuccia Mandelli, described how greedy tax police squeezed bribe money out of their clients.
Judge Salvatore Cappelleri said he would set the next trial date later this month. When it resumes, defense attorneys plan to finish their closing statements.
Reviewing the background for the defense, Corso Bovio, Mattioli’s lawyer, said, “At the time those bribes were paid, Italians everywhere were victims of extortion. Whether it was blatant or subtle, extortion was a problem we all had to live with.”
At one point during his speech, Bovio pulled out a stack of newspaper clippings from the early Nineties with headlines touting the power and influence of the tax police. He read the headlines to the court.
“Italy’s tax officials were untouchable, everyone feared them and, like secret agent 007, they had a license to do anything they wanted. How could anyone have defied them or taken them to court?” he asked. “Had my client told me at the time that he wanted to turn them in, I would have said he was a very courageous man.”
The trial concerns sums ranging from $62,000 to $260,000 paid by the fashion houses to tax officials during a series of audits from 1989 to 1991.
Last month, prosecutor Elio Ramondini called for 17-month sentences for the defendants. Should such sentences be handed down, however, it is unlikely the defendants would serve prison time. Under Italian criminal law, defendants do not go to jail for sentences shorter than two years. Typically, such sentences are suspended.
Italy’s Mani Pulite, or Clean Hands anticorruption investigations began in 1992. They were headed by Antonio Di Pietro, a magistrate whose tenacious investigations revealed endemic corruption in Italy’s political and business worlds.
The investigation into Italy’s fiscal police, begun in May 1994, is just one phase of the ongoing probe.
Mandelli’s lawyer, Oreste Dominioni, argued that tax police concocted their plan before they approached the fashion houses.
“They singled out the biggest, most successful houses and agreed on their strategy to exact money from them. Theirs was a detailed, premeditated plan of extortion, not a consensual deal with the designers,” Dominioni said. “They were going to demand the bribes, no matter what they found in the fashion houses’ books.”
Dominioni painted a picture of a trapped, terrorized Mandelli who only gave into auditors’ demands when they threatened to expand their audit and disrupt her factory’s delivery cycle.
“Mandelli said no to their request three times. The fourth time, they threatened to hinder her deliveries and she was forced to say yes. Had those deliveries not been made, she would have lost money, clients — and face,” Dominioni said.
Franzo Grande Stevens, a defense attorney for Versace, dwelled on the subtle language the tax police reportedly used in their talks with Versace.
“The Versace audit should have lasted one month. Instead, it began in January and ended in May,” Grande Stevens said. “After Versace turned down their first request for a bribe, the police would say things like, ‘We just might be drinking champagne and eating Christmas cake with you in December.’ As you can see, the language of extortion can be very genteel and subtle,” he added.

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