Da Financial Times del 14/12/2005
Originale su http://news.ft.com/cms/s/9d38c648-6c41-11da-bb53-0000779e2340.html

Banca Popolare head taken into custody

di Tony Barber, Tobias Buck

Italian authorities on Tuesday night detained Gianpiero Fiorani, the former head of a bank at the centre of a European cross-border takeover controversy that has engulfed Italy’s central bank and Antonio Fazio, its governor.

Mr Fiorani was placed in custody on the same day the European Commission in Brussels announced it would take legal action against Italy for its handling of the takeover affair.

Mr Fiorani, a family friend of Mr Fazio, was already under investigation by Italian magistrates for suspected financial offences in the way that Banca Popolare Italiana, the bank of which he was chairman, tried to acquire Banca Antonveneta, another Italian bank earlier this year.

BPI was eventually forced to give up its bid in favour of ABN Amro, a Dutch bank that had claimed its takeover campaign was being unfairly obstructed.

Mr Fiorani was placed in custody on suspicion of embezzlement, market manipulation and association with criminal intent. However, he has not yet been formally charged with any offence.

Also detained were Gianfranco Boni, BPI’s former financial director, and Silvano Spinelli, another former BPI executive.

The close relationship between Mr Fazio and Mr Fiorani was exposed in July when the Italian media published transcripts of telephone conversations, taped on magistrates’ orders, that showed the two men discussing the Bank of Italy’s approval for BPI’s bid for Antonveneta before the central bank had officially notified financial markets.

The European Commission’s action against Italy over allegations that the country’s authorities sought to protect domestic banks from foreign takeovers marks an escalation in the long -running battle between the Brussels regulator and the Bank of Italy under its controversial governor, Antonio Mr Fazio. Mr Fazio has faced intense criticism – not least from the Italian government – over his role in the takeover battle. earlier this year, in which ABN Amrothe Dutch bank, and Spain’s Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria sought to win control over two Italian banks.

The bids for two Italian banks by ABN Amro and Banca Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria were quickly cleared by the Commission’s antitrust department, but faced delays as they were scrutinised owing to the scrutiny of by the Italian central bank. Mr Fazio’s critics allege that he sought to ensure the targeted banks would eventually fall into the hands of Italian institutions, which had also submitted bids.

It later emerged that Mr Fazio had been in close contact with the chief executive of one of the Italian bidders during crucial stages of the battle. The Commission has asked Rome, in a so-called letter of formal notice, the Italian government to explain its regulatory framework for such banking takeovers. The letter gives Italy two months to respond, and is the first step towards launching a challenge against Rome in front of the European Court of Justice, the Union’s highest court.

“The Commission is concerned that this framework may allow for the exercising of supervisory authority which lacks procedural transparency and can create legal uncertainty. This could therefore act as a disincentive to investment from other member states,” Brussels said yesterday in a statement.

Under EU law, central banks and other financial supervisors may only examine whether a cross-border banking deal poses a threat to a bank’s financial stability. The Commission suspects that the Bank of Italy’s scrutiny in the takeover battles this year went far beyond that remit – and therefore may have infringed two crucial principles of the EU treaty: the free movement of capital and the right of establishment.

Prosecutors in Rome have kept Mr Fazio under investigation for suspected abuse of office since August, but they have not yet taken the step of asking asked for him a judge to order him to stand trial. This means Mr Fazio he has so far not been formally accused of any crime.

Some of the centre-right Italian government’s most senior figures – from Gianfranco Fini, foreign minister, to Giulio Tremonti, finance minister – have urged Mr Fazio to step down. But he has stayed, firmly in place, asserting that his conduct in the takeover affair was irreproachable.

Yet Mr Fazio’s position was not helped last month when his own European Central Bank colleagues said the procedures followed in the takeover battle, while in accordance with Italian law, had not necessarily followed EU principles.

Giovanni Pons and Giuseppe Oddo, two Italian journalists, last month published L’Intrigo (The Intrigue), a book that alleging that Mr Fazio and his family received expensive gifts from, such as a gold Baume Mercier watch, gold Pomellato jewellery and Dom Perignon champagne, from Gianpiero Fiorani, the banker whom Mr Fazio is said to have favoured in the takeover affair.

The Bank of Italy noted on Tuesday night that no comment had been made by the Commission concerning its conduct. “The Bank of Italy, if called upon, will contribute for the part falling within its scope?.?.?.?and as may be necessary to the prompt and satisfactory settlement of the matter,” it said.

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