Italian police have confiscated more than £1.1 billion from one of the country’s renewable energy bosses – who may have been part-funded by the European Union – after alleging links to the country’s most-wanted Mafia fugitive.
Police say that Vito Nicastri, 57, known as “Lord of Windpower” for his investment in the wind energy sector, was heavily linked to the Cosa Nostra godfather Matteo Messina Denaro, who tops the most wanted list in Italy.
Officers yesterday seized the bulk of Mr Nicastri’s business empire, including 43 companies, 98 buildings and property holdings, cars, motorcycles and a large catamaran.
Arturo De Felice, the head of Italy’s anti-Mafia agency, the DIA, said the seizure had brought authorities closer to finding Messina Denaro, a flamboyant boss with a weakness for Armani suits and Rolex watches who is said to have boasted that his murder victims were “enough to fill a cemetery”.
“We are convinced that the activities of the DIA are draining the petrol from Messina Denaro’s car,” Mr De Felice said. “We have the resources and the determination to capture him. We just need that little stroke of luck.”
Mr Nicastri, who has previous convictions for corruption, fraud and false accounting, is subject to a three-year obligatory residence order that forbids him from leaving his home town and imposes a night-time curfew.
Police claim that he built his business career on corrupt relations with local officials in Sicily and his friendship with Messina Denaro, who has direct authority over the city of Trapani and the western tip of Sicily, and other Mafia bosses.
However, Mr Nicastri’s business interests are not restricted to Sicily. They include energy projects in Calabria, Lazio and Lombardy in Italy and financial investments in Denmark, Spain, Monaco, Malta and Luxembourg.
Police say that Mr Nicastri sent his employees scouting the mountainous interior of Sicily for farmers with suitable land for solar energy farms, telling them that the plants would be entirely financed by regional and national government grants. He subsequently billed the regional authorities for more than the effective cost of the work, investigators allege.
As a “convergence region”, Sicily has been allocated € 3.3 billion in European Union economic development funding over the past seven years, some of it earmarked for “the production and use of renewable energy”.
Mr De Felice said that his investigators had not so far discovered evidence of the misappropriation of EU funds by Mr Nicastri’s companies. “We have not come across European funds, but regional funds, yes,” he said. However, EU sources said it was likely that Mr Nicastri’s empire would have received some funds from Brussels.
For decades, the fraudulent use of EU aid has been a constant bane of the multibillion-euro system that delivers subsidies to the newest members and poorest regions. The European Anti-Fraud Office did not respond to a request for clarification on the issue.
Mr De Felice said his office had not found documentary proof of a direct financial relationship between Mr Nicastri and Messina Denaro, but it was inconceivable the energy entrepreneur could have become a major player in western Sicily without his approval.
A handwritten note confiscated from the Palermo boss, Salvatore Lo Piccolo, on his arrest in 2007 read: “Nicastro from Alcamo OK.” Police said that the note, in which Lo Piccolo misspelt Nicastri’s name, was intended to give a green light to a wind energy project on the Palermo boss’s territory.
Prosecutors say that Mr Nicastri thrived within the Cosa Nostra culture, paying trivial sums in protection money on his own projects and facilitating such payments for others.
The court document ordering the confiscation of his assets said: “This was Nicastri’s strength, a rock-solid link to the criminal network of the territory where he operated and the guarantee there would be no ulterior criminal interference.”
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