A corruption investigation has been opened into an Italian politician close to Steve Bannon.
According to prosecutors in Rome, Armando Siri, a senator for the far-right Lega party and a junior government minister, was in discussions to accept more than 30,000 euros ($33,700) in bribes from a businessman to promote policies benefiting the family’s business empire, Italian news agency ANSA reported.
Siri was the first politician from Lega, led by Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, to meet with Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, when Bannon first began courting links to Lega last year.
Lega then became the most significant party in Western Europe to endorse Bannon's initiative to boost European nationalists when it was announced a few months later.
Investigators do not allege the bribes have a connection to any projects directly involving Bannon, but they appear to be exactly the kind of "crony capitalism" that Bannon claims to be crusading against. And the charges touch the closest members of Bannon’s circle inside the Lega party.
According to prosecutors, Siri was caught on a wire tap discussing the bribes with a businessman named Paolo Arata. The corruption probe is based in Sicily, but leaked this week when prosecutors in Rome issued search warrants.
Quoted by ANSA, Siri denied being involved in criminal affairs. “I don’t know what it’s about,” he said. “I must first read and understand. I have read names I don’t know.” Salvini has rejected calls for Siri to quit while he is under investigation, saying he has full confidence in Siri.
Bannon did not immediately respond to a message from BuzzFeed News.
Siri created one of the many far-right political training institutes that Bannon is supporting throughout Europe. Bannon credited Siri's school as a model for the political training course he is now developing at former monastery outside Rome during a December 2018 interview with Corriere Della Sera.
Siri’s political education school is designed to cultivate young leaders in the Lega party, but the Italian broadcaster RAI reported it also provides tax advice as well as rents space to hypnotists and healers who use crystals.
During a previously unreported interview with BuzzFeed News last October, Siri called for the current democracy in Italy to be replaced with an "aristocracy.”
"This type of democracy is not working," Siri said. "Do not confuse democracy with freedom. They are two separate things. There can be a democracy without freedom and there can be another system where there is a lot of freedom."
"It would be an even larger freedom" without democracy, Siri said, "Because the biggest freedom is to be able to realize one's life — people does not want to choose their leaders, they want to live their lives.”
Last September, BuzzFeed News was told that Paolo Arata's son, Federico Arata, was responsible for connecting Bannon to Lega in the first place. Federico Arata is not under investigation as part of the corruption probe.
In a statement sent to BuzzFeed News, Federico Arata said, "I have no links whatsoever with the probe linked to some members of my family mentioned in the media."
Sebastiano Caputo, a journalist and a friend of Federico Arata, said that Federico Arata wrote to Bannon shortly before Italy's 2018 election to encourage Bannon to build bridges with Italy's rising nationalist leadership. Federico Arata first introduced Bannon to Siri, and Bannon met with Siri and Salvini, then not yet in office, in March 2018.
The Italian outlet Espresso reported Friday that Federico Arata’s relationship with Bannon goes back all the way to 2016, and credits Federico Arata with connecting Salvini and Donald Trump.
Federico Arata has repeatedly declined to discuss his relationship to Bannon with BuzzFeed News on the record, but denied the Espresso report.
Federico Arata served as a chief assistant to Bannon during several of his first visits to Italy, and helped write a major speech Bannon delivered to a far-right conference in Rome last September. Federico Arata also accompanied Bannon when he traveled on a trip to meet with Czech President that month, which also included a secret stop to meet with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The source for information about the March 2018 meeting between Bannon and Salvini was reported by the Italian press agency AGI. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the source.