A suspected plot to smuggle €20m from Switzerland and the arrest of a former Italian secret service agent; a financial middleman and a senior priest with a past as a banker who is now under suspicion of money laundering.
Claiming to have foiled a caper worthy of Hollywood, or at least Cinecittà, the Italian police on Friday arrested a prelate and two others on corruption charges, saying that the priest plotted last summer to help wealthy friends sneak the money, the equivalent of about $26 million, into Italy while evading financial controls.
Along with the prelate, a financial broker and a military police agent deployed to the Italian Secret Service were arrested after an investigation that developed out of a broader three-year inquiry into the Vatican Bank. The case is the latest black mark on the bank, which under Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI has been trying to shake its image as a secretive tax and money laundering haven and bring itself into compliance with European norms so it can use the euro.
Rome prosecutors say the three men hired a private plane last July with the intention of bringing the cash into Italy from Locarno, Switzerland. The money was to be carried by the Secret Service agent, Giovanni Maria Zito, who would not be required to declare it at the border. But the scheme fell through, the prosecutors said, as the three began bickering and, eventually, lost their nerve. Cellphones used by the three in arranging the money transfer were later burned, prosecutors said.
The European Union and the United States have served notice in recent years that they will no longer tolerate the wall of secrecy in tax havens like Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands. As a result, major account holders have been growing increasingly nervous.
Nello Rossi, the Rome prosecutor who led the investigation, said that discussions picked up on wiretaps seemed to indicate that the 20 million euros in Switzerland was tied to the D’Amico family, Salerno shipping magnates.
Even before his arrest on Friday, the prelate, Msgr. Nunzio Scarano, was known to the authorities. An employee of Deutsche Bank before entering the priesthood, and until recently an accountant in a top Vatican financial office that oversees the Catholic Church’s real estate holdings, Monsignor Scarano was under investigation by magistrates in Salerno on accusations that he illegally moved $730,000 in cash from his account in the Vatican Bank to Italian banks, his lawyer said.
Monsignor Scarano’s lawyer, Silverio Sica, said his client would contest the charges. “I am certain he will want to speak to prosecutors to clarify his position,” Mr. Sica said. He added that Monsignor Scarano had had no previous dealings with the police or with judicial investigations.
In a statement on Friday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that Monsignor Scarano had been suspended from his position at the Vatican “more than a month ago, ever since his superiors were informed that he was under investigation.”
He added that the Holy See “has not yet received any requests from the competent Italian authorities, but confirms its willingness for full collaboration,” and that the Vatican’s internal financial watchdog was following the matter and would take, “if necessary, the appropriate measures in its competency.”
Only priests, members of religious orders, Catholic institutions, employees of the State of Vatican City and diplomats accredited to the Holy See are allowed to keep accounts at the Vatican Bank, known as the Institute for Works of Religion. But rumors have long swirled that accounts were being used as fronts for other interests, including organized crime and Italian politicians.
In the Salerno case, prosecutors accuse Monsignor Scarano of having illegally moved 560,000 euros, equivalent to $730,000, from his account in the Vatican Bank. Mr. Sica said that the monsignor had told prosecutors that the money came from a “generous donor” and was intended to finance a hospice for terminally ill patients in Salerno.
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