Genoa - It was one of the few gripping moments in a trial that had promised to be electrifying, but in the end has proven to be simply what it was supposed to be: an exhausting series of accounting data, diagrams cross referenced with corporate real estate deals to make one’s head spin. But, following months of trial procedure, the chief accused, former chairman of Italian bank Banca Carige, Giovanni Berneschi, who had hitherto displayed swagger and plenty of loquacity, suddenly faltered as prosecutor Silvio Franz requested a six-year conviction for defrauding the bank which Berneschi ruled with an iron fist for twenty years.
It was a memorable moment in what has been the real estate assets purchase scam scandal that rocked Italy’s banking world two and a half years ago, and led to the arrest of Berneschi. It also spelled the demise of an era for the bank, as well as that of questionable accounting and poor lending practices that have left the bank’s accounts in a dismal state. The prosecution is also requesting heavy sentences for the other defendants, seven years for Ferdinando Menconi, the former chief executive of Carige’s insurance subsidiary, the same for Milan-based property developer Ernesto Cavallini, six years for the middle man, Sandro Calloni, and five years for Genoa-based accountant Andrea Vallebuona.
Let us remind ourselves of the allegations: prosecutors accuse them of forming a criminal conspiracy to carry out fraud and money laundering; Berneschi together with the former head of the bank’s insurance unit, Menconi, convinced the bank to buy assets at highly inflated prices from their accomplice in the real estate market, Cavallini. They then shared the illicit profits gained by laundering the money in Switzerland through a series of proxy-companies; Mr. Vallebuona, the accountant, lent his hand in the creation of the fictitious companies, and they all relied on the help of Swiss lawyer Davide Enderlin to launder the funds - he is on trial in Milan – along with some front men, including Berneschi’s daughter-in-law, Francesca Amisano, and a middle man, Calloni.Two accountants, Piermaurizio Priori and Alfredo Averna, and a lawyer, Ippolito Giorgi di Vistarino, were found guilty of lesser offences (the prosecution recommended a one-year sentence): they stand accused of false testimony, as, according to the prosecution, they were responsible for backdating the minutes of a board meeting. The prosecution has also called for the confiscation of €26 million from Berneschi and Calloni, €30 million each from Menconi and Cavallini, €5 million from Vallebuona, and a million each from Priori, Averna and Giorgi di Vistarino. What could happen in the event that the court upholds the prosecution’s request? Given the severity of the crimes, the statute of limitation is still a long way off, should the verdict go all the way up to Italy’s Supreme Court all those indicted are likely to return to some kind of detention, house arrest for some, such as Berneschi who is well past his 70s (in Italy prison detention at that age is only practiced for particularly dangerous criminals), but imprisonment for others.
The scandal erupted in May 2014, with a series of arrests and the revelation of shocking information obtained through wiretapping, such as the one in which Menconi revealed he was “in the garden, putting into the fire” the computers which could contain incriminating data. Later, in an attempt to protect themselves, all those indicted fought epic legal battles, asking during the preliminary stage of the trial for the hearings to be moved away from Genoa, but the judge rejected those requests, except in the case of Enderlin.
Their position was further complicated after Francesca Amisano, in order to avoid prolonged court proceedings opted for a plea bargain, claiming to be too overwrought by events: thus she admitted the existence of a criminal conspiracy and was sentenced to two years and three months in prison. Evidently, however, her admission of guilt, was of significant assistance to the prosecution.