Friday, June 08, 2007

Mafia acquitted of killing God's Banker

A court in Rome has acquitted five people accused of murdering Italian financier Roberto Calvi due to insufficient evidence. Calvi was known as “God’s Banker” due to his work on behalf of the Vatican’s bank. The decision comes almost 25 years to the day of his death. In 1982 his body was found hanging from London’s Blackfriars Bridge with rocks and $15,000 in cash stuffed into his suit. London police initially ruled it suicide but Italian prosecutors eventually brought murder charges in 2003 after pressure from Calvi’s family. The five cleared this week are Giuseppe "Pippo" Calo, a mafia money launderer, businessmen Ernesto Diotallevi and Flavio Carboni, Calvi's driver and bodyguard Silvano Vittor, and Carboni's Austrian ex-girlfriend Manuela Kleinszig.

While the acquittal of Kleinszig was not unexpected (the prosecution had asked for her charges to be dropped due to insufficient evidence), the release of the four others after a 20 month trial was a shock. Prosecutors had asked for life sentences for all four. One of the detectives involved in the case, Geoff Katz, said he was surprised by the verdict. "It'll be a tremendous disappointment for the families and also the Italian magistrates who have spent so much time on this case," he said. But one of Calo's lawyers, Massimo Amoroso, said the evidence was weak. The judges have yet to release their reasoning for the verdict.

The acquittals leave a sense of continuing uncertainty over how Calvi met his death. Roberto Calvi was 62 years old when he was found hanging from a rope attached to scaffolding under the bridge. He had come to the UK on bail after having been convicted of corruption in Italy. During the trial, prosecutors alleged Calvi was taken to the bridge by boat and was probably still alive but unconscious when a noose was placed around his neck.

The Milan-born Calvi was chairman of Banco Ambrosiano which collapsed shortly before he died. The bank was founded in 1896 as a Catholic bank and named for St Ambrose, the fourth century archbishop of Milan. The bank’s purpose was to act as a counter-balance to Italy’s secular banks. Calvi joined Ambrosiano in 1947 and worked his way up to become chairman by 1975. Calvi created a number of off-shore companies in the Bahamas and South America and also bought Italy’s premier newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Meanwhile the bank’s major shareholder was now the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), the official name of the Vatican bank. In 1971 Pope Paul VI appointed Chicago-born Archbishop Paul Marcinkus chairman of the IOR. The burly Marcinkus was a papal bodyguard known as “the Pope’s gorilla”. He saved the pontiff’s life after he knocked a knife out of the hands of a deranged Bolivian painter who lunged at the Pope in the Philippines. The bank job was his reward. Marcinkus was a practical man when it came to financial affairs and his dictum was “you can’t run the church on Hail Marys”. He knew the unworldly Vatican needed a commercial banking partner and in 1974 he chose Banco Ambrosiano.

Calvi was a compulsive operator and used a complex network of overseas banks and finance companies to move money out of Italy, inflate share prices, and secure massive unsecured loans. By 1978 the bank was in deep trouble. The bank of Italy issued a report that found Banco Ambrosiano had made illegal exports of several billion lire. In 1981 Calvi was put on trial and given a four year suspended sentence and a $20 million fine for taking $26.4 million out of the country in violation of Italian currency laws. Incredibly Calvi kept his job at the bank.

While investigating Calvi, police uncovered a link to financier Licio Gelli. Both men were freemasons and Gelli was the leader of a covert Masonic lodge called Propaganda Due (P2). This lodge was extremely powerful and its members were journalists, parliamentarians, industrialists, and military leaders and the heads of the three Italian intelligence services. When police searched Gelli’s house they found a document called the Democratic Rebirth Plan which was a plan to steer Italy towards a more autocratic government. Its existence scandalised Italy. Gelli fled the country, but the affair brought down the government of Arnaldo Forlani.

A year later Banco Ambrosiano was on the verge of collapse with debts of $1.4 billion. It was revealed that Calvi had given the money in questionable loans to three of Banco Ambrosiano’s Latin American subsidiaries. The bank was accused of money laundering for P2 and the mafia. Archbishop Marcinkus and the Vatican bank were implicated. The IOR owned ten of the overseas dummy companies in the Bahamas and South America to which Ambrosiano lent the money.

Calvi was devastated by the discovery of the loans. On 5 June 1982, he wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II in which he pleaded for help. The letter started: “I have thought a lot, Holiness, and have concluded that you are my last hope.” Calvi went on to warn the pope that the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano would “provoke a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions in which the Church will suffer the gravest damage”. He also claimed the IOR were hiding the facts about the Vatican’s financial irregularities from the pope.

Five days later Calvi left Rome, presumably without an answer from the pontiff. He obtained a false passport and flew to London. The prosecution in the court case alleged he was lured to London so he could be killed for embezzling Mafia funds as well as stop him from revealing what he knew about the Vatican Bank and P2. After being missing for seven days, he was officially sacked from the bank. On the morning after a mail-room clerk of the Daily Express, walking to his job on Fleet Street, found Calvi swinging from Blackfriars bridge in London’s financial district.

An initial autopsy judged the death as suicide. But a second autopsy a year later gave an open verdict. In 1984 the Vatican Bank agreed to pay US$224 million to the 120 creditors of the failed Banco Ambrosiano as a “recognition of moral involvement” in the bank's collapse. In 1987 Milan judges investigating the Ambrosiano affair issued a warrant for Archbishop Marcinkus’s arrest for being accessories to the fraudulent bankruptcy of the bank. But because the Vatican enjoyed protected borders under the 1929 Lateran Treaty, the Italian police could not arrest him. The Pope accused the Italians of a “brutal cover-up” and refused to extradite him. Marcinkus was quietly retired to Phoenix, Arizona.

Calvi's family continually maintained that his death had been a murder. His body was exhumed in 1998 and a forensic report four years later concluded he had been murdered. The case was re-opened in 2003. The ringleader of the five people charged was Pippo Calo, a Mafia gangster already serving a long prison sentence. Prosecutors said they believed Calvi was murdered by the Sicilian Mafia and mainland Italian mobsters, the Camorra, as punishment for pocketing money they had asked him to launder. The prosecution presented forensic evidence that he was strangled and his suicide staged in a manner suggesting Mafia or Masonic ritual.

But after this week’s verdict, his family are in anguish again. Calvi's son Carlo who now lives in Canada never believed that his father's death was a suicide. He said he was disappointed but not surprised. "I never thought this was going to end today," he said. "But these are the individuals I consider responsible for organizing his journey to London and his murder on the behalf of others."

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