Money laundering in Milan? Qatargate shifts to Italy

Money laundering in Milan? Qatargate shifts to Italy
Опубликовано: Thursday, 09 March 2023 06:44

The sprawling corruption probe in Brussels is expanding, as Italy probes whether Qatar laundered bribes through a Milan consultancy.

MILAN — Reporters took turns knocking at the prosecutor’s door on Wednesday.

Their question: Have the documents arrived yet from Belgium?

The papers are moving locations along with the public’s attention this week, as the sprawling corruption probe engulfing the European Parliament shifts suddenly from Brussels to Milan.

Italian officials have launched their own probe into whether a Milan firm, Equality Consultancy, helped launder Qatar’s bribes for EU lawmakers, a person familiar with the investigation confirmed. And on Thursday, three Milan judges will have to decide whether to extradite the firm’s founder, Monica Bellini, to Belgium.

But first, local officials want to see the latest evidence from Belgium.

Belgian prosecutors have had both Equality and Bellini in their sights for weeks. Bellini served as an accountant for the former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, the alleged mastermind of a cash-for-influence network at the Parliament working on behalf of Morocco and Qatar. And her firm, Equality Consultancy, was enmeshed in a web of figures now at the center of the so-called Qatargate scandal.

Bellini, Belgian investigators wrote in a European arrest warrant obtained by POLITICO, “has played an important role in the return of cash coming from Qatar creating … a firm which could give a legal appearance to the flow of cash.”

Now, the Italian authorities are also separately exploring these connections — a first.

It’s a twist bound to put fresh focus on Bellini and the links between her work in Italy and the alleged bribes infiltrating the EU’s Parliament — a relationship that remains opaque. The result could be added details on how, exactly, Qatargate occurred.

From Milan to Brussels … to Tallinn?

Bellini’s work with Equality Consultancy is shrouded in mystery.

Public records and internal communications portray a firm that lived only briefly, moving swiftly to spread internationally and make political connections — with only fleeting success.

Equality Consultancy started in 2018, when Bellini founded the company in Italy with Stefano and Luciano Giorgi, according to multiple media reports. The grouping pulled her into a family that would become close to the EU corruption probe. Stefano Giorgi is the younger brother of former Panzeri assistant Francesco Giorgi, whom Belgian authorities consider to be a key player in Qatar’s alleged bribery ring, while Luciano Giorgi is their father.

The company rose quickly.

In 2019, Equality Consultancy registered an annual revenue of €240,000 and profits worth €102,500, according to internal documents obtained by POLITICO and reported on in the Italian press. That same year, the firm took faltering steps to establish a presence in Brussels.

According to one person familiar with plans, the organization rented office space at SilverSquare, a co-working space on Square de Meeûs in the heart of the city’s consultancy district in 2019. When reached by phone, a SilverSquare employee who declined to give his name confirmed Equality had rented space.

With a local foothold in place, Equality started making connections.

WhatsApp messages from a phone number that two people linked to Francesco Giorgi showed him working to expand the firm’s Brussels operations in late 2019. The company eventually set up at least one meeting with a local accountant, according to an internal company email seen by POLITICO and a person at the meeting.

Equality, for unclear reasons, also established the similarly named “EQuality consultancy OÜ” in the Estonian capital of Tallinn in 2018, according to the country’s public register. But the company remained dormant until liquidating the outpost in the summer of 2019.

Belgian authorities have since charged Francesco Giorgi with corruption, money laundering and participating in a criminal organization. He is currently out of jail with an electronic ankle tag, pending trial. Panzeri, his one-time boss, has confessed to operating a bribery ring as part of a plea deal.

Bellini’s lawyers and Stefano Giorgi have not replied to POLITICO’s multiple requests for comment. A lawyer for Francesco Giorgi said he does not intend to comment on the ongoing probe. The Belgian prosecutor did not reply to a request for comment.

Follow the (dwindling) money

Equality was gone almost as rapidly as it had blossomed.

In 2020, revenue fell to €81,000, leading to a €51,000 loss for the year, according to the internal documents.

The company’s owners blamed the pandemic.

“Our business with one of our major customers were reversed, and the services were frozen until September,” Bellini wrote in an internal report, seen by POLITICO, detailing an owners’ meeting on July 9, 2020. But Bellini remained bullish: “We trust in a recovery in order to face costs.”

Bellini and one of her assistants did not reply to requests to comment on the report.

Ultimately, it was not to be. By 2021, the company had shut down in Italy, according to public records.

Now the ball is in the Milan judges’ court.

In January, a local judge postponed a decision on whether to extradite Bellini. The reasoning, essentially, was that the local authorities wanted to see more evidence from the Belgians, according to a document seen by the Italian daily La Repubblica.

On Thursday, the public will get an indication of whether the Italian authorities are satisfied with what they have — or haven’t — seen.

And as of late Wednesday, the local prosecutor said the latest documents had yet to arrive.

Camille Gijs, Pieter Haeck, Elena Giordano and Gian Volpicelli contributed reporting.

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