Di Pietro, corruption and Clean Hands: an interview with Domenico Pacitti
Antonio Di Pietro, the former Milan magistrate, became an overnight national hero in Italy in the early 1990s for bringing leading politicians to justice on corruption charges. Domenico Pacitti tells JUST Response what happened and why Operation Clean Hands eventually failed
JUST Response: Can you tell us something about the "Clean Hands" initiative in Italy in the early nineties and why the opportunity to improve the transparency and accountability of civil servants failed?
Domenico Pacitti: Operation Clean Hands, or “Mani Pulite”, which took off in 1992, basically revealed that Italy’s political parties were being illegally financed by industry and that it was only the tip of an enormous iceberg of political corruption. The phenomenon was christened "Tangentopoli", or "Bribesville", by the Italian press. Well, this and worse had always been going on but politicians were now becoming rather careless.
JUST Response: And the crusade was led by Antonio Di Pietro?
Pacitti: The operation was actually conducted by a group of magistrates in Milan headed by a man called Francesco Saverio Borrelli – but the dominant member of the group was, as you say, Di Pietro. Over 2,500 people, mainly politicians and business administrators, suddenly found themselves facing an array of corruption charges. Di Pietro became a sort of overnight national hero but predictably his success was short-lived. Clean Hands had taken politicians by surprise but they soon got their act together and closed ranks. By 1995 there was strong cross-party political agreement that Clean Hands would just have to stop before everyone ended up in prison – and it did. The tables were turned on Di Pietro and 27 criminal charges were raised against him.
JUST Response: So was Di Pietro forced to resign from the judiciary?
Pacitti: Di Pietro has always insisted that he resigned on his own initiative in order to face charges honourably. He was, in fact, eventually cleanly acquitted on all of them, after which he decided to enter politics.
JUST Response: How did Di Pietro enter politics?
Pacitti: At first he was courted by the political right and even by Berlusconi in person but Di Pietro always seems to have had something of a gut hatred for Berlusconi. I think Di Pietro saw and still does see Berlusconi as a sort of symbol of everything he has always fought against. Eventually he opted for the left, accepting former premier Massimo D’Alema's invitation to stand for election and so Di Pietro became a senator.
JUST Response: And how did Italians react to this?
Pacitti: Well, understandably, Italians were disappointed and they suspected that this had been Di Pietro’s intention all along and that Clean Hands had been politically rather than judicially motivated. Di Pietro began to be perceived as having betrayed his mission. This was very seriously aggravated by the systematically adverse media portrayal of both Clean Hands and Di Pietro himself. He went on to found his own “Italia dei Valori", [Italy of Values] movement, but Italians had largely abandoned him.
JUST Response: You lived through this period in Italy, witnessed the events unfold and actually met and spoke with Di Pietro at some length. Is that right?
Pacitti: Yes. I first met Di Pietro in Rome about two-and-a-half years ago where we did a long televised interview together. It was during the run-up to the Italian national elections and I was on commission for the Times Higher Education Supplement in London. It was published in two articles. One appeared in the Times Higher under the title "Running on a clean-up ticket" [see the Pacitti Archive], the other in the Brussels-based journal World Parliamentarian – "Face of revolution" [see endnotes to this article]. Di Pietro agreed to meet me and suggested the televised interview as a sort of friendly exchange.
JUST Response: What was your impression of Di Pietro?
Pacitti: Well the first thing that struck me was that the members of his own entourage seemed nervous in his presence. Di Pietro wouldn't stand for any nonsense and always insisted in talking straight and acting with the utmost attention to legal and moral factors, which is pretty unusual in any Italian sphere let alone in politics. At one point this caused some tension with one of Di Pietro's associates and one of his closest advisers turned to me and said: "You know, he really is like this." I soon sensed that he was not likely to get very far in the elections, basically because he spoke a different language from other Italian politicians.
JUST Response: And what language was that?
Pacitti: The truth.
JUST Response: So you wouldn't doubt Di Pietro's good intentions or integrity?
frankly, I’ve never seen any reason to doubt either his good intentions or his
sincere belief in justice as an absolute value. On the other hand, he always
lacked sufficient political backing to have any real chance of transforming
Italy. Italians knew this all along and followed Clean Hands as a sort of
theatrical tragi-comedy that had to end sooner or later. Nor has Di Pietro ever
been completely convincing as an Italian politician, which is in a sense the
highest compliment one can pay him. The presence in parliament of a man who was
genuinely concerned with justice was about as fitting as an iron girder in a
Clean Hands was much more than an attempt to improve transparency and
accountability among civil servants?
It certainly was. It struck at the very heart of corruption in Italy in the form
of the entire ruling class of politicians. And the main reason it failed is
because justice has always been anathema to Italy’s Machiavellian, grossly
overpaid politicians – like holy water to the devil as an Italian saying puts
it. The effects of the operation have now been almost completely annulled and
many of the politicians who were arrested and imprisoned have not only been
fully rehabilitated but are actually back in parliament right now. Italy under
Berlusconi is now well and truly back to square one and all forms of corruption
are once again rampant.
JUST Response: Is Di Pietro still very active?
Pacitti: Oh yes. He's still battling away for all the good causes and seems set on becoming a minister in a centre-left coalition at the next elections.
JUST Response: Do you think he will succeed?
Pacitti: I fear he might.
JUST Response: Why do you say "fear"?
Pacitti: Because that could only mean serious compromise on Di Pietro's part, given the total unacceptability by any Italian political party of the values he is trying to promote.
Note: This interview took place in June 2003 and was published for the first time by JUST Response on August 26 2003.