Why is Italian PM Conte being accused of a conflict of interest?

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has denied accusations of conflict of interest after reports linked him to an allegedly corrupt investment fund now being investigated by the Vatican.

Why is Italian PM Conte being accused of a conflict of interest?
Italian PM Giuseppe Conte has denied accusations of conflict of interest. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Conte's office stated on Monday that he “only gave a legal opinion” when advising the investment fund in question before he became Prime Minister in 2018.

Lawyer Conte did not know the deal he'd advised on was linked to a Vatican-backed investment fund that is now under investigation for possible corruption, his office said.

Conte was hired in May 2018 to provide a legal opinion in favour of Fiber 4.0, a shareholder group involved in a fight for control of telecoms company Retelit, according to a report in the UK's Financial Times on Monday.

The lead investor in Fiber 4.0 was Athena Global Opportunities, funded entirely by $200 million from the Vatican Secretariat, the FT wrote.

The British newspaper linked the story of Conte advising on the deal, which has long been reported in the Italian press, to an ongoing Vatican financial investigation.

The internal probe at the Vatican is said to be centred on an Athena property deal in London.

So far it has resulted in the suspension of five employees and the resignation of the pope's chief of security.

The prime minister has faced accusations of a conflict of interest over the Retelit deal, after issuing a decree based on Italy's “golden powers” laws that favoured Fiber 4.0 shortly after coming to power.

Photo: AFP

“There is no conflict of interest,” the prime minister's office stated.

“Conte only gave a legal opinion and was not aware of, and not required to know that, some investors were linked to an investment fund supported by the Vatican and now at the centre of an investigation,” the PM's office said.

PROFILE: Italy's PM Conte, the 'Mr Nobody' who found his voice

Conte, who was a virtual unknown when he was selected to form his first government in June 2018, had been charged with drawing up a legal opinion on the government's possible use of golden powers.

“Of course, at that time no-one could have imagined that, a few weeks later, a government chaired by the same Conte would be called to rule on that precise issue,” it said in a statement.

“To avoid any possible conflict of interest, Prime Minister Conte formally abstained from any decision on the exercise of golden power,” it added.

The “golden powers” allow the government to block foreign control of companies deemed to be of strategic national importance.

READ ALSO: Giuseppe Conte: How Italy's prime minister survived the collapse of his governmentf

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Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy’s elections

Scandal-plagued former premier Silvio Berlusconi said he plans to return to Italy's parliament in upcoming elections, almost a decade after being forced out over a conviction for tax fraud.

Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy's elections

“I think that, in the end, I will be present myself as a candidate for the Senate, so that all these people who asked me will finally be happy,” the 85-year-old billionaire and media mogul told Rai radio on Wednesday.

After helping bring down Prime Minister Mario Draghi last month by withdrawing its support, Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party looks set to return to power in elections on September 25th.

It is part of a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy, which includes Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League.

Berlusconi brushed off reports he is worried about the possibility of Meloni – whose motto is “God, country and family” – becoming prime minister.

Noting the agreement between the parties that whoever wins the most votes chooses the prime minister, he said: “If it is Giorgia, I am sure she will prove capable of the difficult task.”

READ ALSO: Italy’s hard right set for election victory after left-wing alliance collapses

But he urged voters to back his party as the moderate voice in the coalition, emphasising its European, Atlanticist stance.

“Every extra vote in Forza Italia will strengthen the moderate, centrist profile of the coalition,” he said in a separate interview published Wednesday in the Il Giornale newspaper.

League party leader Matteo Salvini (L), Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni and Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi pictured in October 2021. The trio look set to take power following snap elections in September. Photo by CLAUDIO PERI / ANSA / AFP

Berlusconi was Italy’s prime minister three times in the 1990s and 2000s, but has dominated public life for far longer as head of a vast media and sports empire.

The Senate expelled him in November 2013 following his conviction for tax fraud, and he was banned from taking part in a general election for six years.

He was elected to the European Parliament in 2019, however, and threw his hat in the ring earlier this year to become Italy’s president — although his candidacy was predictably short-lived.

Berlusconi remains a hugely controversial figure  in Italy and embroiled in the many legal wrangles that have characterised his long career.

He remains on trial for allegedly paying guests to lie about his notorious “bunga-bunga” sex parties while prime minister.

Berlusconi has also suffered a string of health issues, some related to his hospitalisation for coronavirus in September 2020, after which he said he had almost died.