A Vatican-backed investment fund at the centre of a financial corruption investigation was behind a group of investors that hired Giuseppe Conte — now Italy’s prime minister — to work on a deal it pursued just weeks before he took office.
The link to Mr Conte, revealed in documents seen by the Financial Times, is likely to draw further scrutiny of the financial activity of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, the Holy See’s powerful central bureaucracy, which is the subject of an internal investigation over suspicious financial transactions.
Mr Conte was a little-known Florence-based academic when he 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 Retelit, an Italian telecoms company last year. The lead investor in Fiber 4.0 was the Athena Global Opportunities Fund, funded entirely by $200m from the Vatican Secretariat and managed and owned by Raffaele Mincione, an Italian financier.
The ultimate source of Mr Mincione’s funds was never declared in the shareholder battle for control of Retelit and was unknown before Vatican police this month raided the offices of the Secretariat to seize documents and computers due to concern over a luxury London property deal it struck with Athena.
In the property deal the Secretariat invested in a £129m building in London’s Chelsea with money it held away from central Papal State funds in several Swiss bank accounts. The deal has raised concerns from Vatican investigators that the Secretariat may have been misusing hundreds of millions of dollars under its control, which have been donated to the poor by Catholics around the world.
The probe has resulted in the suspension of five employees and, after criticism of its handling, the resignation of the Pope’s security chief. The Vatican has not officially confirmed the focus of its investigation, but people familiar with the probe said it was centred on the Secretariat’s investment in a plan to build 49 apartments in Chelsea.
Mr Conte leapt from being a political unknown to lead a populist Italian government in June 2018. He resigned this August after the coalition split but was reappointed as prime minister in September to lead a new coalition government formed of the Five Star Movement and Democratic party.
He has already faced accusations of a conflict of interest in connection with the Retelit deal, after he issued a decree based on Italy’s so-called “golden power” laws that favoured his former clients within a week of becoming Italy’s prime minister.
He has denied any conflict of interest but is likely to face fresh scrutiny of his ties to the transaction and the Vatican’s involvement.
Mr Mincione’s Athena Global Opportunities fund owned 40 per cent of the Fiber 4.0 consortium. The consortium already owned 9 per cent of Retelit and planned to use a vote of its shareholders to place Mr Mincione on the company’s board. Retelit’s revenues amounted to €73m in 2018.
Accounts for the Athena fund, which is incorporated in Luxembourg, show that Mr Mincione’s investment in Retelit was made using the $200m he managed exclusively for the Vatican Secretariat.
However, Mr Mincione lost the vote of Retelit shareholders in April 2018 to a rival group of shareholders made up of two foreign investors, Germany’s Shareholder Value Management and Libya’s state telecoms company.
Mr Mincione’s defeated consortium in May hired Mr Conte as a legal expert in an attempt to overturn the result of the vote.
In a memo to his clients dated 14 May 2018, seen by the Financial Times, Mr Conte wrote that the vote could be annulled if Retelit was placed under the “golden power” rules, which allow Italy’s government to block foreign control of companies considered of strategic national importance.
Mr Conte argued in his recommendation to Fiber 4.0 that the involvement of the Libyan state company meant “golden power” rules should be applied.
In June 2018, two weeks later, Mr Conte was appointed prime minister and that month his cabinet passed a decree doing just that. However, the step was not enough for Fiber 4.0 to overturn the result of the shareholder vote it had lost.
Rome has used the “golden power” provision six times out of a total of 40 foreign takeovers since its introduction in 2012, according to estimates by the law firm White and Case.
Rocco Casalino, the Italian prime minister’s spokesman, declined to comment on whether Mr Conte considered his work for the consortium — Fiber 4.0 — and his government’s application of the golden power as a conflict of interest.
He also declined to comment on whether Mr Conte was aware that he was working for a fund backed by the Vatican Secretariat.
Mr Mincione told the Financial Times he had never met Mr Conte, and that the future Italian prime minister was picked by another law firm that worked for the consortium. Mr Conte’s appointment to the premiership was “a coincidence” and issues of conflicts of interests “simply a bad luck story”, he said.
“What benefit did I get from the Golden Power ruling [for Retelit]? It did not produce a penny of loss or a penny of profit for me. Nobody benefited from this or lost from this,” he said.
Gianluca Ferrari, Shareholder Value investment director, said that this sort of conflict of interest risked damaging international investor confidence in Italy.
“They attempted to invalidate the result [of the shareholder vote] via a legal technicality that required government approval, and hired a lawyer who released a legal opinion coincidentally days before he was appointed prime minister,” he said.
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