Stings in Sicily reveal Cosa Nostra links in green-energy racket

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PALERMO, Italy — A Sicilian entrepreneur delivered his pitch to the accused mafia boss. A new business was blowing into Italy that could spin wind and sunlight into gold, ensuring the future of the Earth as well as the Cosa Nostra: renewable energy.

“Uncle Vincenzo,” implored the businessman, Angelo Salvatore, using a term of affection for the alleged head of Sicily’s Gimbellina crime family, 79-year-old Vincenzo Funari. According to a transcript of their wiretapped conversation, Salvatore continued, “for the love of our sons, renewable energy is important. ... it’s a business we can live on.”

And for quite awhile, Italian prosecutors say, they did. In an unfolding plot that is part “The Sopranos,” part “An Inconvenient Truth,” authorities swept across Sicily last month in the latest wave of sting operations revealing years of deep infiltration into the renewable energy sector by Italy’s rapidly modernizing crime families.

The still-emerging links of the mafia to the once-booming wind and solar sector here are raising fresh questions about the use of government subsidies to fuel a shift toward cleaner energies, with critics claiming huge state incentives created excessive profits for companies and a market bubble ripe for fraud.

China-based Suntech, the world’s largest solar panel maker, last month said it would need to restate more than two years of financial results because of allegedly fake capital put up to finance new plants in Italy. The discoveries here also follow so-called “eco-corruption” cases in Spain, where a number of companies stand accused of illegally tapping state aid.

Because it receives more sun and wind than any other part of Italy, Sicily became one of Europe’s most obvious hotbeds for renewable energies over the past decade. As the Italian government began offering billions of dollars annually in subsidies for wind and solar development, the potential profitability of such projects also soared — a fact that did not go unnoticed by Sicily’s infamous crime families.

According to court documents, wiretap transcripts and interviews with officials familiar with the investigations, crime families and businessmen would target land suitable for wind or solar plants, sometimes pressuring landowners to sell or offer long-term leases.

Corrupt local officials were enlisted to speed through application processes that could otherwise take three to six years. After receiving approval, they would approach foreign investors eager to tap the Italian government’s green subsidies program.

The mafia’s involvement inhibited legitimate renewable business investment in Sicily, where construction of most new renewable projects has been stopped.

“Criminal organizations were allowed to do business” in the renewables sector, said Nicolo Marino, Sicily’s new energy minister. “We lost a vital opportunity for development and the region lost the chance to profit from it.”

Roughly a third of the island’s 30 wind farms — along with several solar power plants — have been seized by authorities. Officials have frozen more than $2 billion in assets and arrested a dozen alleged crime bosses; corrupt local councilors and mafia-linked entrepreneurs. Italian prosecutors are now investigating suspected mafia involvement in renewable energy projects.

“The Cosa Nostra is adapting, acquiring more advanced knowledge in new areas like renewable energy that have become more profitable because of government subsidies,” said Teresa Maria Principato, deputy prosecutor in charge of Palermo’s Anti-Mafia Squad. “It is casting a shadow over our renewables industry.”

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