Lugano court tries "Ticinogate" suspects

Gerardo Cuomo (left) and Franco Verda are accused of high-level corruption

A high-profile corruption case, involving a former judge and a suspected mafia boss, is underway in Ticino, with a verdict expected within a week. The case sent shock waves through the canton's judicial system when it first came to light last year.

This content was published on June 19, 2001 - 18:43

Franco Verda, a former president of Ticino's criminal court, is facing corruption charges. He is accused of accepting SFr800,000 ($451,000) in kickbacks from a suspected mafia boss, Gerardo Cuomo, who is wanted in Italy for cigarette smuggling.

Although the case centres on corruption, the spotlight will also be on Switzerland as a hub of the illegal trade in cigarettes, a contentious issue in the country's relations with the European Union.

Italy accuses Cuomo of masterminding a Europe-wide cigarette smuggling operation, and has demanded his extradition. He will be handed over when his trial in Lugano ends.

Verda, 60, is charged on four counts of corruption and similar offences, relating to an incident two years ago when he was dealing with a case in which SFr3.2 million had been seized from bank accounts belonging to Francesco Prudentino, the fugitive head of an Italian mafia syndicate.

Verda ordered that half of the money be released, and was implicated after investigators tapped a telephone conversation in which Cuomo informed Prudentino of Verda's decision in advance of it having been made.

During the phone call, investigators said Cuomo, who allegedly acted as a go-between, advised Prudentino to pay SFr800,000 - a quarter of the total sum - to "the magistrate".

A local Sunday newspaper, "Il Caffè", contributed much to the investigation. It told investigators that Cuomo, who owns a tobacco import-export company in Lugano, had received a legally dubious extension of his Swiss residence status - presumably by Verda. "Il Caffè" also published photographs showing Verda as a party guest on Cuomo's private yacht.

Cuomo, 56, was detained in Zurich in May last year after Italy issued an international warrant for his arrest. Verda was also taken into custody, but later released and demoted from public office.

The incident led to a diplomatic row between Italy and Switzerland in the wake of the "Ticinogate" affair, when Ottoviano Turco, then Italy's minister of finance, rebuked Switzerland for having "sheltered" Cuomo for more than two years and for allowing the continuation of his import-export business.

The Swiss federal court decided in favour of Italy, allowing for the extradition of Cuomo once he has been punished in Switzerland. Since his sentence is expected to be less than the time already spent in investigative custody, Cuomo will face criminal charges in the southern Italian city of Bari shortly after the trial in Lugano ends later this month.

When the federal judges made their decision on Italy's extradition request, they ruled that Cuomo could not be extradited for cigarette smuggling because it is not a crime in Switzerland.

Cigarette smuggling is treated as a customs offence by Swiss law, and as such doesn't qualify for cross-border judicial assistance.

The federal court therefore allowed the extradition only on charges of money laundering and because Cuomo had flaunted the immigration laws.

by Markus Haefliger

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