Olivetti Chief Under Arrest as Italy Widens Kickback Net

ITALIAN investigating magistrates have arrested a leading businessman in Italy's long-running political corruption and bribery scandal.

Carlo De Benedetti, the head of the Olivetti office machine company, was questioned in Rome on Nov. 2 after turning himself in to the Milan Carabinieri at dawn.

Rome Judge Augusta Iannini, who issued the arrest warrant on Oct. 30, charges that Mr. De Benedetti paid a 10 billion lira ($6.1 million) kickback to obtain a contract to furnish computers to the Italian Postal Ministry. Lesser kickbacks to the ministry were reportedly paid by other firms, including Pirelli and Marconi.

``We've said clearly that justice has to take its course,'' says Mario Cauli, spokesman for Confindustria, the employers federation. ``We have great faith in the justice system.''

The arrest of one of Italy's best-known businessmen drew sympathy from many Italians who have a genuine liking for the Olivetti chief.

De Benedetti won points by voluntarily going before the Milan judges last May and detailing his companies' involvement in Tangentopoli, the scandal that began almost two years ago. In his statement, he said that Italy's businessmen were forced to pay kickbacks to politicians for public contracts, under threat of being excluded from the Italian market.

DE BENEDETTI is a maverick politically, with a well-known preference for the Democratic Party of the Left (the PDS or ex-Communist Party), and religiously, as a practicing Jew in a traditionally Roman Catholic business community.

The Olivetti chief is the majority owner of La Repubblica, one of the country's top newspapers, and L'Espresso, a left-leaning weekly newsmagazine. In La Repubblica's Oct. 31 issue, the usually caustic cartoonist Giorgio Forattini drew himself presenting pencil and paper to the paper's panic-stricken editor, saying, ``You do the cartoon today!''

De Benedetti's arrest came following a controversial warning from Milan Judge Gherado Colombo that the case load in the Operation Clean Hands investigation was getting so large that there was danger many cases could not be tried within their five-year legal limit.

Gerado D'Ambrosio, the head of the Milan pool, subsequently proposed that trials should be speeded up for those who confess to soliciting or paying illegal funds to political parties.

The judges today have more work than before. After a strong public outcry over a vote that left former Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi immune from prosecution on several serious corruption charges, Parliament revised parliamentary immunity late last month so that senators and deputies can be brought to trial, though they are still exempt from search and arrest. One result is that Mr. Craxi may now be tried.

As a result of the judicial investigations, Craxi, a prime minister in the mid-1980s, has emerged in the public mind as the leading architect of the kickback system. Craxi admits his party collected 187 billion lira ($114 million) in kickbacks between 1987 and 1990 alone. He resigned the leadership of his party early this year as the scandal unfolded.

Craxi has gone before Milan Judge Antonio Di Pietro on several occasions recently, not so much to clarify the role of his own Socialist Party in Tangentopoli as to give his version of how other political parties (and particularly his bete noire, the PDS and its predecessor) may have illegally financed themselves.

Craxi and De Benedetti are not on friendly terms.

The discrediting of the political Old Guard will inevitably bring forward new faces on the political scene. President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro has pledged to announce a date for the early election of Parliament.

In a referendum last April, Italians overwhelmingly favored the establishment of a British-style electoral system, which was subsequently approved by Parliament.

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