May 16 (Bloomberg) -- Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi won a battle of wills with dissenters in his coalition by insisting parliament immediately strip its protection from an allied lawmaker facing judicial charges.
The lower house voted 371-39 late yesterday to allow prosecutors in Messina, Italy, to arrest Francantonio Genovese, a member of Renzi’s Democratic Party, on charges including embezzlement and money laundering. The vote was called at Renzi’s demand after two days of heated debate in which leaders of his own party’s parliamentary group argued for a delay.
The debate over Genovese, 45, threatened to hurt Renzi’s appeal in European elections among voters weary of corruption scandals. While lawmakers from the Democratic Party, or PD, had said they would eventually vote to hand Genovese over to the authorities, its leaders, including Chief Whip Roberto Speranza, opposed taking immediate action up to an hour before Renzi demanded the ballot.
The PD “believes everyone is equal before the law,” Renzi said on his Twitter account after winning the vote. “And it applies it, every time. Even when dealing with its own lawmaker.”
Genovese is accused of using companies he controlled to defraud the Region of Sicily and the European Union of funds set aside for job-training programs, according to a report by a parliamentary committee which voted this month to recommend the full assembly allow his arrest. Italian law requires prosecutors to seek parliamentary permission in some cases before putting a lawmaker in jail.
The lawmaker denied the charges of false invoicing and tax fraud, according to the committee’s official findings.
A spokesman for the PD asked to comment on behalf of Genovese referred questions to the parliamentary group, and a spokeswoman for the group didn’t return a request for comment after being contacted by Bloomberg by phone.
Genovese also said the funds he is accused of embezzling are very limited when compared with his wealth, and imprisonment isn’t warranted because it would be impossible to imagine a repeat of the alleged crimes, according to an account of his testimony included in the committee report.
Renzi, 39, rose to power with a reputation as a political outsider and a promise to force generational turnover in Italian politics. The former mayor of Florence became premier in February after winning an internal power struggle within the PD. The divisions within the party remain.
The prime minister “is doing everything he can to show that he’s in control,” said Federico Santi, an analyst with Eurasia Group in London. The premier’s popularity with voters gives him authority over members in parliament, who “recognize that he’s the party’s last chance,” Santi said.
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