AN ITALIAN MELODRAMA

                            VENICE, September 27- As Rome burned in AD64, so historians report, Emperor Nero
plucked his lyre on a terrace of the Palatine Hill and sang ‘The Sack of Ilium.’
              Not much has changed in Rome 2012 where politicians were caught on film this month spending
public funds at drunken toga-parties, some aptly masquerading as pigs, kissing, cuddling and feeding each
other bunches of grapes.
               All went well until auditors, alerted by whistleblowers, found regional development and
administrative funds had gushed into the pockets of family members and cronies; expenses were padded to
four times the legitimate amount; regional and municipal legislators purchased ostentatious new ‘chariots’
and voted themselves outrageous pay rises.
               One startling fact indicated the President of the province of Sicily earned more then President
Barack Obama and a lowly municipal councilor could take home an annual quarter of a million dollars (in net
wages) for a few sittings a year and possibly earn three times as much in kick backs for permits and tenders.
               These extravagances by elected politicians were exposed in recent weeks to the chagrin of most
Italians at a time when ordinary workers wages have plummeted to post World War II levels, unemployment is
rising daily and the public is being flagellated by tax hikes, pay cuts and austerity measures, allegedly
designed to reduce Italy’s 3.7 trillion dollar debt and save the country from bankruptcy.
              But who is to blame?
              There are two culprits, depending on who holds the floor.
               The opposition argues the true monster is Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his 18 years at the
helm of the nation, his blatant lies and his appointments of ‘yes’ people to key positions, rewards for their
staunch loyalty or in the case of women, like his dentist, to their good looks and utmost devotion - to him. Few
of these appointees had the experience or the skills for the jobs Berlusconi delegated to them. Many were
plucked from virtual obscurity.
               On the other hand the Berlusconian version claims at fault for all this mayhem is Frau Angela
Merkel, the German chancellor. She plans to create a Fourth German Reich, this one built on economic
power rather then on Panzers and Stukkas. Frau Merkel allegedly ‘blackmailed’ Italy by insisting on austerity
measures in return for easing the country’s loan burden and allowing it to remain in the European Union. But
in reality she intends to dominate Europe by imposing German economic directives. And she wants to bring
Italy under German suzerainty, vengeance for Italy’s ‘betrayal’ of Germany in two world wars.
               How Frau Merkel can be held responsible for the squandering of public funds is anyone’s guess.
One can only assume Signor Berlusconi feels had she not insisted on austerity measures in Italy no one
would have noticed these ‘peccadilloes’ of the ruling caste.
               In reality neither Berlusconi’s turbulent regency nor Frau Merkel’s imperial designs have anything to
do with the ingrained corruption, nepotism, cronyism and the Mafia methods of an Italy that has always been
the way it is now, ever since the days of Nero, the subsequent Papal States and reunification.
               The latest scandal, involving the Regional Council of Lazio province of which Rome is the capital,
exposed how millions of public Euros ended up funding boozy and sexy parties, the kind Prime Minister
Berlusconi enjoyed for years. What was good for the gander was good for the geese.
               Much of the squandered funds were also distributed to cronies, family members and potential
voters. Often these funds were cut from public services.
               The misappropriation scandals are being aired during virtual TV reality shows. Accused councilors,
provincial presidents and federal politicians and party leaders appear night after night to justify or comment
on the latest charges of misuse of taxpayers’ money. Their easiest way out is to blame previous
administrations for a system that simply kept going.
                One of those who admitted she kept the system going is the President of Lazio Council, Renata
Polverini. She is one of Berlusconi’s favorites because, like him, she never answers charges directly but
shouts down everyone else as she details matters not at all related to the misuse of funds. This week she
resigned claiming she knew nothing about misappropriation though photos show her at one Roman orgy
hand-feeding Northern League party boss Umberto Bossi, a Berlusconi coalition partner.
              To comprehend how the system works one has to go back two months to the Sicilian Scandal when
the province of Sicily announced virtual bankruptcy with a 21 billion dollar debt and warned unless the federal
government in Rome helped out it could mean ‘civil war.’
              Subsequent audits showed politicians had used public funds to buy votes, rewarded their
supporters by voting for a thirty per cent increase in permanent public jobs when millions of jobs were being
made redundant in the rest of Italy. Needless to say these jobs went to favorites, loyalists and those who had
done the politicians a favor.
            The influential German weekly, Der Spiegel, did a survey and discovered most of these new job-
holders, especially the 11 per cent taking home highly paid managerial wages, had no idea what they were
supposed to do.
          The magazine reported the Sicilian government appointed 27,000 new forest guards to patrol a sliver
of Sicilian forest, far more guards then British Columbia with its ‘endless’ forests.
           One third of all Sicilian politicians have a criminal record. This does not disqualify them from office,
nor does it exclude any other Italian from seeking a seat as an ‘Onorevole’ (Honorable One) in Rome’s
Federal parliament.
           The fact 144,000 Sicilians obtain their wages from the government is not endemic to Sicily. Most
Italian provinces are bloated with bureaucrats.
          Neither was it a surprise bridges are built in Sicily without access roads and dams are constructed
without water.
           The European Union has offered Sicily 25 billion dollars in grants but it balked when the Sicilians
asked for 750 million dollars for Christmas decorations a few years ago.    
           Milking the system is a time-honored Italian malaise.               
           The boisterous Northern League, Berlusconi’s main coalition ally, has clamored for decades for a
separate state in the north, the fabled Padania along the river Po. Their campaign speeches denounced the
South as crooked, run by Mafias, a South that gobbled up all the profits from the hard work of the North and
then misused public funds.
            The Northern League, supported by horn-helmeted mobs of racists, has been very, very quiet lately –
following the ‘scandal’ of millions of dollars channeled to Swiss banks by its leaders, especially founder
Umberto Bossi a man who referred to his son as ‘La Trotta’ (the Trout|). The son drives a Ferrari and has a
doctorate from an Albanian University he never attended.
           In the wake of the scandal the party hierarchy resigned while their supporters hung up the horned
helmets – at least temporarily.
             Then there is the Veneto province where a federal Prime Minister built a super highway in the 1960s,
the Valdadisco. It lead to his home, a 28 kms four lane road from the busy A4 highway to the foot of the Alps.
The road was to join up with the Brenner Highway cutting travel to Austria by an hour.  The Valdastico is Italy’
s quietest highway. It still ends in a heap of rubble near the late Premier’s home - just as it did fifty years ago.
            Few politicians or administrations in Italy are beyond reproach or can be prosecuted because once
pay rises and distribution of funds are passed by a vote their use, to whatever ends, becomes legal.
           This may be the reason why Sicily’s President Raffaele Lombardo, Lazio’s president Renata
Polverini, Northern League’s Umberto Bossi, a Berlusconi party treasurer known as ‘Er Batman’ and Silvio
Berlusconi still walk the streets and appear on virtual TV shows arrogantly insisting: “I am innocent.”
ends