Parmalat auditor grilled on fate of lost billions

Italian investigators on the trail of billions of euros missing from the accounts of Parmalat questioned an internal auditor of the insolvent food group on Friday about the whereabouts of the money.

Pressure also increased on the Bank of Italy and a string of domestic and foreign banks over their links to the Parmalat crisis, which prosecutors suspect involved more than a decade of fraud, market rigging and false accounting.

The prosecutors quizzed Gianfranco Bocchi, who they accuse of faking bank account details and other documents, at a prison in the city of Parma, a source close to the investigation said.

“If anybody has taken money, whoever they are, we want to know about it,” the source added.

So far, investigators have uncovered only some six million euros ($7.6 million), according to judicial sources.

According to a previous interrogation report, Bocchi told magistrates he had ignored orders from a boss to “hammer his laptop” and destroy audit documents and computer files.

Bocchi worked on Parmalat's accounts for almost 20 years. He is one of 10 people under arrest in the case, who also include Parmalat founder Calisto Tanzi and two former finance directors. No charges have been brought so far.

Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti on Thursday called for reforms of Italy's financial regulatory system and he singled out for criticism the Bank of Italy, which is governed by his long-time rival Antonio Fazio, for failing to protect investors.

“The Bank of Italy perhaps ought to have noticed in the course of the years and in the course of its inspections that something was at least anomalous,” Tremonti told parliament, proposing the central bank be stripped of some oversight powers.

The heat was turned up on Friday with newspapers reprinting details from nearly 20 letters sent by Tremonti to Fazio and deposited in parliament, asking about the dairy group's finances and those of smaller food group Cirio which collapsed in 2002.

To most questions, Fazio's response was that the request was “illegitimate,” the documents showed.

The sudden revelation of Parmalat's accounting hole, that investigators say could top 10 billion euros, has raised questions about the country's regulators as well as the involvement of Italian and international banks and auditors.

Investigators have asked seven non-Italian banks for information, a judicial source said on Thursday. So far, police have searched the Milan offices of Bank of America and taken documents from an Italian unit of Citigroup.

A lawyer for Citigroup met prosecutors in Milan on Friday. There have been at least two similar meetings this month.

Swiss banking group UBS, which was one of the seven non-Italian banks listed by the source, said on Friday it had yet to hear from Italian prosecutors.

“We have no knowledge of being involved (in the investigations),” said a UBS spokesman. “If we were contacted by the authorities, we would of course cooperate fully.”

UBS said last week it had bought 420 million euros of bonds last year from Parmalat but it expected no material financial fallout.

Bank of America Corp. on Thursday became the first foreign bank to reveal its Parmalat exposure, saying it had $274 million in loans, credit letters and derivatives.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the investment banking arm of Britain's Barclays had exposure of 45 million pounds ($82 million).

Parmalat has previously said it had outstanding bank loans worth nearly two billion euros.

Investigators were also working through nine boxes of documents shipped to Italy after U.S. authorities seized them from the New York home and office of Gian Paolo Zini, a lawyer who worked for Parmalat founder Tanzi.

A judicial source said Anita Tanzi, wife of the jailed entrepreneur, had made bank transfers of 700,000 euros since her husband's arrest in late December. But she was not under investigation, the source said.

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