By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - The resignation of Rome's mayor over allegations he fiddled his dining expenses may at first sight suggest Italy is finally getting tough on corruption. In reality, his troubles show just how resistant to change the country is.
On the face of it, it is hard to defend Mayor Ignazio Marino. His approval ratings have shriveled and many Romans complain public services such as rubbish collection, road maintenance and transport have never been worse.
Despite winning election by a crushing margin 2-1/2 years ago, the 60-year-old former liver surgeon from the northern city of Genoa never clicked with the capital's residents.
An outsider with poor communication skills, the center-left mayor soon seemed so alien to the city's life and politics that they nicknamed him "The Martian". Perhaps worst of all, he even upset the pope.
Yet even his harshest critics acknowledge that Marino - a member of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) - did not cause Rome's problems, and that public services had been crumbling for years before he was elected in 2013.
Many commentators say that if city life deteriorated on his watch it is not because he did too little to change things but because he tried to do too much, hitting implacable opposition from those who benefited from the status quo. These ranged from politicians and businessmen to trade unions and shopkeepers.
"Marino trod on the toes of too many vested interests who didn't want to give up their privileges," says Gian Carlo Caselli, a former anti-mafia prosecutor. "They boycotted him and, without the need for any plot or alliance, they managed to bring him down."
His demise offers an insight into Italy as a whole, where official attempts to reduce the power of insiders are regularly beaten back, and magistrates' efforts to curb corruption have failed to halt a seemingly endless series of scandals.
Marino quit on Oct. 8 over seven disputed expenses claims out of hundreds he had made.. They involved sums that seem extremely modest by the standards of scandals in Italy, which last year ranked joint last in the European Union with Greece, Bulgaria and Romania on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.
Denying any wrongdoing, he has yet to leave office formally and has joked that if his enemies had failed to remove him over the expenses, then "sooner or later they would have put cocaine in my pockets".
Rome's problems of inefficiency and corruption are shared by cities up and down the country, but it is the capital that has been grabbing the headlines.
On Nov. 5, a high-profile trial will begin in Rome in a case known as "Mafia Capitale" (Capital Mafia). It brings to court dozens of politicians and businessmen arrested at the end of last year for allegedly rigging public contracts in areas from Roma camps to refuse management and immigrant centers.
Marino is not implicated but may appear at the trial to present the city as an injured party.
TRANSPORT AND TRASH
Two city companies are emblematic of Rome's long-standing mismanagement and malfeasance: ATAC, which is responsible for public transport, and AMA, which handles trash collection.
More than 80 percent of public contracts assigned by ATAC in the last four years, worth about 2 billion euros ($2.2 billion), have not followed transparent procedures, according to Italy's anti-corruption authority.
Stefano Esposito, a senator close to Renzi who was drafted into Rome's city hall this summer to tackle transport problems, says he found a "critical" situation.
Frequent disruptions on the Rome metro are due to it not being properly maintained for 10 years, Esposito says. A quarter of the city's buses are so old they are unusable, and of the 1,500 in use, 250 break down before finishing their day's work.
Half of ATAC's 12,000 employees are in largely unproductive administrative jobs, he says, while it has only 80 active ticket inspectors. That helps to explain why 40 percent of travelers on buses and trams don't pay their fare, and why the company has accumulated losses of 1.2 billion euros in the last eight years.
Marino changed ATAC's management, obliged bus and metro drivers to clock in and out for the first time, extended working hours and cracked down on unjustified sick leave. Absenteeism is down to 10 percent from 15 percent when he became mayor, but the response from unions has been disruptions and wildcat strikes which have worsened services even more.
AMA, with a history of absenteeism even worse than ATAC's, is widely blamed for the city's long-running trash crisis, with overflowing skips illustrating the urban decay. Marino removed the chief executive, who was later arrested for corruption in the Capital Mafia operation.
He closed the biggest landfill site in Europe just outside Rome, and launched a drive to boost recycling. The head of the landfill, Manlio Cerroni, has been convicted of fraud and faces trial on other charges including criminal association and improper waste treatment.
Marino reduced absenteeism among AMA's 8,000 employees and cracked down on abuse of a law allowing time off to care for a disabled relative, which was used by a quarter of the workforce.
However, his tough line alienated both AMA's workers and the businessmen who had benefited from dealings with Cerroni and his landfill over the last 30 years. The result was that, in the short-term, the trash crisis got worse.
Marino did not only upset bus drivers and street cleaners.
When he pedestrianised four roads in the historic center, retailers and local residents revolted, saying it would hurt their business and make parking difficult.
He angered the city's 6,000 traffic police by ruling that every seven years they must work in another part of town in an attempt to curb familiarity with residents and favoritism. The response? Protests, strikes and more traffic chaos. Last New Year's Eve 83 percent of traffic police on duty called in sick.
He blocked plans for building on Rome's green belt for environmental reasons, angering powerful interests in the construction sector.
All over the Eternal City Marino made enemies, not least in the Vatican, across the Tiber river from city hall.
In October 2014, Marino held a ceremony recognizing 16 gay marriages performed outside Italy. His decision angered the Roman Catholic Church, which has managed to block any legal recognition of same-sex couples in Italy for decades.
Almost a year later, with Marino already under fire for leaving Rome's problems behind to attend a Mass held by the pope in the U.S. city of Philadelphia, the pontiff himself took revenge.
Asked by a reporter whether he had invited Marino to the Mass, Pope Francis replied: "I did not invite Mayor Marino to Philadelphia, is that clear? I also asked the organizers and they didn't invite him either, is that clear? He professes himself to be a Catholic and he came independently."
Marino had never claimed the pope invited him, but his critics lampooned him as a papal hanger-on and gate-crasher.
Marino's saga is not yet over. Weakened and isolated, he quit under pressure from his own party as well as the opposition. However, he is threatening to withdraw his resignation and challenge the PD to vote him formally out of office, adding to a sense of uncertainty and chaos in the city.
Alfonso Sabella, a hardened Sicilian anti-mafia prosecutor whom Marino brought into his city government in the role of "Councillor for Legality" after the Capital Mafia scandal broke, said he wept with frustration and anger when the mayor resigned.
"I just hope that the progress made by this city council in fighting wrongdoing does not come to a sudden halt," he says.
(additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio; editing by David Stamp)