Roberto Speciale, the former head of the Italian finance police (Guardia di Finanza) has started legal proceedings against Romano Prodi, prime minister, and Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, finance minister, for defamation. Not only the opposition but also some members of the centre-left coalition have warned that the issue could spark an institutional crisis.
General Speciale was removed from his post as chief of the finance police a few weeks ago for reasons which are still not clear. In an article for the newspaper Il Giornale, Speciale said that he was put under pressure by the deputy finance minister, Vincenzo Visco, to dismiss those officials investigating the takeover bid by Unipol, a cooperative, of Bnl, a major bank. Since Unipol is politically close to the left and since the takeover bid was with some probability secretly promoted by members of the current government, any evidence of political interference with the work of the finance police on the Unipol-Bnl merger, would put the government in difficulty. There has therefore been speculation that Speciale was sacked for political reasons and Mr Visco has so far not been able to clarify the exact motive for the dismissal. In a Senate debate on 6th June, Padoa-Schioppa,the finance minister, tried to defend the action of his deputy, Visco, and criticized General Speciale for “disloyalty and professional inadequacy”. Those are the expressions which have given Speciale cause to start legal proceedings against the finance minister for defamation. Furthermore, legal action is being advanced against Romano Prodi also for defamation on the grounds of a document presented by Prodi’s government listing alleged wrongdoings of the former head of the finance police. Vincenzo Visco is already under investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Rome for abuse of his office.
Representatives of the government have attempted to play down the issue and declared that they are not worried by the legal proceedings. However, calls for explanations are also coming from the ranks of the centre-left coalition. The affair has badly affected the public image of the government not only because of the dismissal itself but also because of how the government has subsequently tried to cover up the matter as though nothing has happened. Antonio di Pietro, minister for infrastructure and founder of the party Italia dei Valori, has stated that the Visco-Speciale affair has damaged the credibility of the government and of the institutions of the Italian state in general. Still more telling is the criticism made by Cesare Salvi, leader of the leftist party Sinistra Democratica, who has demanded that Visco must at last provide a clear and convincing explanation for his action. According to Salvi, the government has so far provided conflicting accounts of why Roberto Speciale was dismissed and must now tell the truth. Salvi added that the present situation is intollerable and that it is an illusion to think that the problem will just disappear on its own. He also accused the government of having handled the affair in an arrogant and superficial manner.
With these criticisms coming from members of the center-left, it is evident that the government has entered a political crisis. But as the prime minister and the financial minister are now about to investigated for defamation, the crisis may also become institutional.