Public prosecutors in Milan are investigating whether any crimes were committed during negotiations on a proposed deal to secretly channel tens of millions of dollars of Russian oil money to Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega party.
The formal announcement of the investigation came a day after BuzzFeed News revealed a bombshell recording in which a close aide of Salvini's and five other men — two Italian, three Russian — can be heard negotiating the terms of the proposed deal during a meeting in Moscow in October.
One of the prosecutors involved in the case confirmed the investigation to Italian media Thursday. "We're checking to understand whether there are crimes or not," said Francesco Greco.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told reporters he had confidence in Salvini. Welcoming the inquiry, he said, "The judiciary should run its course."
But a source from the Five Star Movement, Salvini’s coalition partners in government, told Italian news agency Agi: “We’re worried about this story; the opening of an investigation is not something to be underestimated. We ask for transparency. There cannot be a shadow over this government. The Movement has never received any funding, nor will we; we only respond to citizens.”
During the 75-minute meeting at the Metropol Hotel — BuzzFeed News has published a transcript of the entire recording — Salvini aide Gianluca Savoini and the other men discussed the details of the arrangement, which would have seen Lega covertly receive about $65 million of Russian money over a year.
The money, siphoned off from a $1.5 billion oil deal and channeled to Lega via intermediaries, was to be used to fund the party’s campaign at May’s European elections. It is unclear whether the deal was executed or if Lega received any funding.
According to Italian media reports Thursday, prosecutors began looking into the allegations in February after some details of the Metropol negotiation were first reported by the Italian magazine L’Espresso, but it is only since publication of the recording by BuzzFeed News that the investigation has been made public. Investigators are focusing on a hypothesis of "international corruption,” the reports said.
On the recording, the Italians were explicit that the purpose of the proposed deal was political, and they were “not counting to make money” for themselves.
At the time of the meeting, Italian law banned political donations over 100,000 euros, and it has been illegal since January to accept any overseas money.
Savoini was also caught on tape making clear that he was fine with the Russians taking extra “commission” for themselves from the proposed deal — described later in the meeting as “an amount to be returned” to them.
“They take even 400 or whatever the fuck they need to take,” he can be heard telling one of the other Italians. “It doesn’t matter. It’s a guarantee. It means they will always do that and for us it’s OK.”
After BuzzFeed News published excerpts of the recording, he told the New York Times on Wednesday that he’d never taken “a dime from Russia, ever. No deal with anyone.”
Savoini added that he did not recall whom he was sitting with during the meeting because “it was full of Italians and Russians that morning. All over the hotel and also who spoke with me.”
During the meeting at the Metropol, however, the six men make several references to previous discussions and meetings.
Savoini describes the three Italians as "a triumvirate,” a “watertight compartment,” and talks about the need to be “more than prudent.” He also describes himself as the "total connection" between the Italian and Russian political sides.
Although Savoini has issued general denials since details of the recording were published, he has yet to respond to a list of detailed questions about the Metropol negotiation that BuzzFeed News put to him Monday. On Thursday, we tried again to get answers to specific points but received no response.
It remains unclear whether the agreement negotiated at the Metropol was ever executed, or whether Lega received any funding.
Reacting to the BuzzFeed News story Wednesday, Salvini, who was described by the Russians on the tape as the “European Trump,” said he’d “never taken a ruble, a euro, a dollar, or a liter of vodka in Russian funding.”
He returned to the story during a Facebook Live on Thursday, telling his followers: “In Europe, there are those who carve up roles to everyone except to Lega, the most voted party,” adding, sarcastically, “because we’re ‘racist,’ ‘populists,’ ‘take money in Russia, the US, in Africa, in Greenland’ ... we're inconvenient."
But Salvini, who was in Moscow at the time but did not attend the meeting himself, has not explicitly denied knowledge of the meeting or of the proposed deal, and he has yet to respond to detailed questions from BuzzFeed News about the recording, in which he is named multiple times.
On Wednesday, two former prime ministers, Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni, called for a parliamentary inquiry and demanded answers from Salvini.