VATICAN CITY — The plot involved an armed police escort, a wealthy shipping family and a plan to secretly transport $26 million (20 million euros) from a Swiss bank account into Italy aboard a private jet. At the heart of the story of greed: a silver-haired Vatican monsignor.
The latest corruption scandal to hit the Holy See unraveled in public on Friday as Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a Vatican accountant, was arrested in the customs-dodging Swiss bank case. He is also under investigation in a separate case of alleged money-laundering involving his Vatican bank account.
The developments came two days after Pope Francis created a commission of inquiry into the Vatican bank to get to the bottom of the problems that have plagued it for decades and contributed to its reputation as an unregulated, offshore tax haven.
Francis has made it clear that he has no tolerance for corruption or for Vatican officials who use their jobs for personal ambition or gain. He has said he wants a "poor" church that ministers to those most in need. He has also noted, tongue in cheek, that "St. Peter didn't have a bank account."
With Francis' reform-minded hand now running the show, the Vatican said it was prepared to fully cooperate with Italian investigators, who described a remarkably detailed scheme allegedly spearheaded by Scarano to benefit some very wealthy friends. Prosecutor Nello Rossi identified them as the d'Amicos, one of Italy's most important shipping families from Scarano's hometown of Salerno in southern Italy.
Rossi declined to say if any of the d'Amicos were under investigation, but said developments were expected in the coming days.
Three people were arrested on Friday: Scarano, a onetime banker who was recently suspended from his job in the Vatican's main finance office, Italian financier Giovanni Carenzio and Giovanni Zito, who until recently was a member of the Italian military police's agency for security and information.
According to wiretapped conversations, the three allegedly plotted to smuggle in some 20 million euros in cash that Carenzio held in a Swiss bank account without declaring it to authorities at the airport.
Scarano's lawyer described him as something of a middleman: The 20 million euros belonged to the d'Amicos, who had given the money to Carenzio to invest but wanted it back. Scarano was tasked with persuading Carenzio to hand it over.
Rossi said the d'Amico money was presumably being held in Switzerland to avoid paying Italian taxes. An email seeking comment from the family's Rome-based company, the d'Amico Societa di Navigazione SpA, wasn't immediately returned.
According to prosecutors, Zito, the Carabinieri agent, called in sick to his job one day in July 2012, rented a private plane and flew with Carenzio to Locarno, Switzerland, to pick up the money. The plan was for Carenzio to withdraw the cash from his bank account and hand it over to Zito to bring back to Italy. The arrangements were so detailed there was even to be an armed police escort waiting at the airport to bring the money to Scarano's home in Rome, Rossi said.
"This operation was meticulously planned in all its details," the prosecutor said, noting that Zito was chosen to be the mule because his high-ranking position in the Italian police agency would have enabled him to pass through the airport customs area without being stopped.
The money could have been transported relatively easily because euros are issued in high denominations. If the cash had been withdrawn in the largest denomination — 500 euro notes — it would have weighed 97 pounds (44 kilos) and fit into a suitcase.
But at a certain point in Locarno, the deal fell through. Carenzio, who had been increasingly balking at handing the money over, made excuses that the Swiss bank couldn't come up with the money, Rossi said.
He declined to identify the bank and it's not clear where the money is. But this isn't the only investigation looking into Carenzio's financial dealings: Rossi noted news reports in the Canary Islands that authorities there are investigating Carenzio for alleged fraud, misappropriation of funds and concealment of assets. He is alleged to have operated a Ponzi scheme, the reports say.
After the aborted transport flight, Zito returned to Rome empty-handed. But he still demanded from Scarano his fee of 600,000 euros for the operation. Scarano cut him one check for 400,000 euros which he deposited. He gave him a second check for 200,000 euros, but in a bid to prevent the check from being deposited, reported it as missing, the prosecutor said.
That put a block on the check and resulted in Scarano being accused of slander for filing a false report knowing that the check was in Zito's hands, Rossi said.
Scarano, as well as the other two, are also accused of corruption. If they are indicted and convicted, they could face up to five to six years in prison, prosecutors said. Rossi said investigators were also looking into the source of Scarano's wealth and his real estate holdings.