Sicily court convicts 91 in massive fraud of EU pasture fund

ROME (AP) — A court in Sicily on Tuesday convicted 91 defendants of roles in a organized crime scheme that bilked the European Union of some 5 million euros (dollars) in subsidies for grazing land on the Mediterranean island.

The reading of the verdicts and sentences took so long, the court in Patti began announcing its decision late Monday night and finished early the next day.

The sentences ranged from two years to 30. Ten defendants were acquitted. The trial began in March 2021 and deliberations lasted a week.

Prosecutors alleged that dozens of reputed Mafia members and white-collar professionals had colluded to defraud the EU of subsidies for use of grazing land, including Nebrodi state parkland in the eastern end of Sicily.

In its account of the trial, Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica said 150 companies fraudulently obtained some 5 million euros from 2010 to 2017, including for land that only existed on paper.

Former park director Giuseppe Antoci, who helped investigators to uncover the scheme, was in the courtroom to hear the verdicts. He narrowly escaped death in 2016 when bullets raked his car. Investigators suspected the attack was the work of local members of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia.

Antoci told reporters that hearing the verdicts was an emotional moment after “years of sacrifice for myself and my family.”

Among the charges that resulted in convictions were extortion and fraud against the European Union. Prosecutors contended that in some instances, defendants used violence and threats to gain control of existing pastures so they could apply for the subsidies.

Prosecutors said the elaborate fraud scheme involved the extensive use of figurehead owners to obtain the EU funds. The allocated funds then moved through a complex system of financial instruments, including accounts abroad, before winding up with the fraudsters, prosecutors alleged.

To obtain the funds, applicants had to certify they had no links to organized crime, and the attestations provided were often false, investigators said.

In arguing for indictment, prosecutors alleged that complicit notaries and bureaucrats handling the paperwork helped Cosa Nostra clan bosses carry out the scheme.

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