MILAN (AP) — The world Expo 2015 has been touted as an expression of Italy's ability to emerge from a long economic crisis, but a bribery scandal involving figures from the country's Clean Hands probe two decades ago shows little has changed.
Two of the seven suspects arrested in the bribery scheme are former politicians who were jailed during the 1990s in the probe that toppled Italy's postwar political class, now being investigated as possible middlemen in a series of shady infrastructure deals in Lombardy.
Another is Expo's head of construction, replaced Tuesday as he sat in jail.
"I confess a sense of dismay when I see images of a hand going into a jacket and pulling out an envelope, and the same names from a past that should have been archived and buried," Premier Matteo Renzi told reporters after meeting with Expo managers on Tuesday.
The Expo bribery scandal, only one in a series that has plagued public works projects in recent years, is an unwelcome reminder of how endemic corruption remains in Italy, despite the Clean Hands investigation.
A new survey of Italian attitudes toward corruption shows that on a scale of 1 to 100, Italians perceived the lawfulness in their surroundings at 21, according to the survey conducted by Coesis Research commissioned for the Afidamp machinery producers.
Not surprisingly, construction bidding was cited as one of the most "fertile territories" for illegality — among 77 percent of the 1,000 people interviewed.
Italy was ranked 69th in Transparency International's perceived level of public sector corruption last year — behind Montenegro and just ahead of Kuwait.
Renzi, who has pledged to clean out the old guard and relaunch Italy's economy, has been moving quickly to protect Expo, a showcase event meant to pump hundreds of millions of euros into Milan and show the world evidence of Italy's relaunch after years of financial crisis.
He last week assigned his corruption czar to oversee the works in the remaining 11 1/2 months until Expo opens and made a quick trip to Milan on Tuesday to stanch the political damage.
The scandal has given a boost to the anti-establishment 5-Star movement just two weeks before European elections. Renzi said he would not heed calls by 5-Star's leader Beppe Grillo to shut construction at Expo, which opens next May.
"Whoever robs needs to be stopped. You don't stop the project. You stop the thieves," Renzi said.
Milan prosecutors are investigating infrastructure kickbacks in Lombardy, including about 180 million euros ($250 million) in building contracts awarded to the world fair involving 147 nations and focusing on one of Italy's areas of excellence: food.
While the Clean Hands probe exposed bribery and corruption in political parties, the recipients of graft in the latest scandal are mostly individuals, the initial investigation shows, albeit with a few names from the old guard.
"The only surprise in the raids were the names of some of the arrested, already brought up 20 years ago as if nothing had changed," wrote Gian Antonio Stella, Corriere della Sera journalist who has exposed the privileged excess of Italy's political class.
He warned that Expo, instead of being "a showcase of hope and revival, risks being covered in mud."