A scandal involving a murdered Italian journalist, the secret service, two generals from the crack financial police corps and as much as $2.2 billion in tax money pilfered from the government would not in itself cause much consternation among Italians, who usually are stoical about such things. Scandals are not new here. But this one is inching closer and closer to a former public official whom secular Italians have elevated to near sainthood -- the late Aldo Moro. w
For the moment, no major Italian politicians have been touched by the scandal and it appears unlikely it will damage the month-old four-party government coalition headed by Christian Democrat Arnaldo Forlani. The country's faith in the political process is taking the beating, however.
The freewheeling Italian press has let itself go unchecked in its coverage of the scandal. "They're obviously all rotten," said one irate television producer asked to comment on the country's politicians. The speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, a Communist, last week attacked what he termed the "profound corruption that has penetrated the decision-making organs of public life."
In its simplest terms, the scandal involved a scheme by which tax officials, the finance police and oil refiners conspired to disguise gasoline as a lesser-taxed oil product and then pocketed the difference. Scores of people, including two top generals of the Guardie di Finanza have already been charged or arrested for defrauding the state. The investigation into the 1979 murder of a journalist who had received tips on the scandal from a now-defunct branch of the secret service has been reopened.
Last week it was revealed that the so-called "D-Office" of the secret service was aware of the oil scheme several years ago and had prepared, but not published, a report on the related activities of Gen. Raffaele Giudice, then commander of the finance police.Giudice was arrested Oct. 24.
The revelation led to widespread suspicion that a vast network of political complicity must have existed. But what seems to trouble many Italians the most is the possible involvement of Moro, who was kidnaped and murdered by the Red Brigade terrorist group in the spring of 1978.
One recipient of large checks from oil refiner Bruno Musselli, considered a major suspect in the case, was Moro's chief assistant, Sereno Freato. Although he is not presently under investigation for his involvement in the scandal, the press has zoomed in on the immense wealth -- stocks, business holdings, several large agricultural and wine-producing estates as well as a considerable art collection -- that Freato amassed during the 20 years he worked for Moro. a
The big question for many Italians is whether Moro knew his assistant was getting rich and whether he himself was involved. One person with few doubts is a neofascist senator and editor, Giorgio Pisano, whose magazine, II Candido, has been running an expose of Moro's alleged financial and business deals. Pisano believes it was Moro's death, and the consequent lack of political protection, that brought the scandal to an end.
The scandal first came to the attention of local judges in the northern city of Treviso through an intensive investigation of the subject by a small newspaper called the Tribuna di Treviso. Then in March 1979 Mino Pecorelli, a journalist, was murdered. Pecorelli's magazine, the small, scandal-oriented Osservatore Politico, had been running a series on the scandal. But all this escaped national notice until Giudice's arrest late last month.
By then the investigation had been extended to 22 Italian cities. According to Socialist Finance Minister Franco Reviglio, the number of people involved in the scandal could run as high as 2,000.
A national inquiry was begun by Attorney General Achille Gallucci in Rome when it became clear that the secret service had been tapping Giudice's phone and copies of the secret service report on the affair had inexplicably found their way into Pecorelli's files.
In Italy, oil imported for use as gasoline is taxed at a far higher rate than that used for home heating oil or diesel fuel. Finance police and tax inspectors allegedly provided oil refiners and owners of several oil storage depots with forged documents that listed the gasoline as home heating oil or diesel fuel and taxed it accordingly. The gasoline was then sold at the normal market gasoline price, which is also higher than the other products, and the swindlers split and pocketed the difference. The injured party, of course, was the Italian state, bilked out of an estimated $2.2 billion.
The impact of the scandal, the worst here since the 1976 Lockheed affair, which led to the arrest of two Cabinet ministers and contributed to the 1978 resignation of President Giovanni Leone, was heightened by news that hundreds of Milanese business firms had joined in a scheme to defraud the state of revenue from Italy's value added tax and speculation in Milan that local politicians were heavily implicated.
The fear here is that the two scandals will add to Italy's disillusionment with its political system and thereby increase the vast political disaffection that is considered to be a major cause of Italian terrorism.
A high-ranking Communist, Giancarlo Pajetta, put it this way: "A man like Freato by himself kills more of our country than a commando of the Red Brigades."