By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - A one-eyed former neo-fascist gangster and 45 other defendants went on trial on Thursday accused of running a mafia crime ring in Rome that skimmed millions of euros off city hall contracts.
Prosecutors say their year-long investigation has laid bare systematic corruption in the city as politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen hooked up with mobsters to rig public tenders on everything from creating refugee centers to rubbish collection.
Massimo Carminati, a one-time member of Rome's notorious far-right Magliana Gang, and his sidekick Salvatore Buzzi, a convicted murderer, are accused of running the operation, which prosecutors say represented a new type of mafia in Italy.
Neither man will appear in court during the trial, which is expected to last until at least next July, but they will follow proceedings via video links from the high security jails where they are being held.
They have denied they have links to the mafia, which would bring them longer prison terms and tougher jail conditions than simple corruption convictions.
"In this whole story, the thing which has really annoyed Carminati is the fact that his name has been associated with the words 'mafia' and 'drugs'. He has nothing to do with the mafia," said his lawyer Giosue Naso as he arrived at the courthouse.
Buzzi's lawyer said his client wanted to strike a plea bargain with prosecutors, looking for a maximum four-year prison term. "That is reasonable, given that we deny any mafia involvement," Alessandro Diddi told reporters on Thursday.
WIRETAPS AND VIDEO
Prosecutors have some 36,000 hours of wiretaps to back up their case, Italian media reported, as well as secretly filmed video showing some of the accused receiving bribes and discussing how they manipulated the system.
News of the investigation broke last December, shocking Italians with the scale of the accusations, which tarnished politicians from both the left and right and many obscure officials responsible for running basic services.
The revelations appeared to go some way to explaining why Rome has fallen into such disrepair in recent years, its roads pitted with holes and its streets strewn with rubbish despite some of the highest local taxes in the country.
"In Rome we are doing everything we can, but what is lacking is the cooperation of all parts of the city's administration," Raffaele Cantone, president of Italy's anti-corruption authority, said last week.
"Rome has shown it does not have the necessary antibodies."
An initial, fast-tracked trial tied to the scandal ended on Tuesday, with four defendants found guilty and handed prison terms of between four and five years. The judge agreed that the graft mechanism represented a genuine organized crime network.
Police say it operated like a mafia clan, but independently of established southern mafias such as Sicily's Cosa Nostra, the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria and Camorra in Naples.
In exerting such broad political control over public contracts, its focus ran beyond traditional Mafia areas of extortion, money laundering and drugs.
Prosecutors allege that mobsters flourished in Rome following the 2008 election of right-wing mayor Gianni Alemanno, who is under investigation for graft, but does not face any mafia-related charges and is not involved in this trial.
Alemanno's successor, the center-left Ignazio Marino, is not implicated in the case, but was forced to resign last week following an unrelated expenses scandal.
(Additional reporting by Massimiliano di Giorgio, Gabriele Pileri and Antonio Denti; editing by Andrew Roche)