Italian mayor accused of skipping tendering process to favour co-ops

Prosecutors claim the mayor of Riace, Domenico Lucano, also awarded two social co-ops a waste collection contract without a call for tenders

A mayor in Italy has been arrested for allegedly encouraging illegal immigration.

Domenico Lucano, who has been mayor of Riace, in Calabria, since 2002, is accused of arranging marriages of convenience between Italian citizens and asylum seekers. Allegations are based on a phone call conversation intercepted by police, in which Mr Lucano allegedly suggests marriage to solve a woman’s immigration issues.

Prosecutors also claim that the mayor awarded two social co-operatives a waste collection contract without a call for tenders. The co-ops – Eco-Riace and L’Arcobaleno – provide jobs for migrants.

Mr Lucano, a former teacher and a human rights activist since the early 1990s, has spent the last fortnight under house arrest. On 17 October a court order banished him from the town. His partner, Tesfahun Lemlem, has also been charged while her residency has been blocked.

The mayor has been running an integration programme that first started under a different government in 1998, which has helped to regenerate the economy of the rural town. Through the project, local people were able to secure jobs as translators, cultural mediators and teachers, while migrants received support to integrate into the local community. Migrants and locals also worked together in artisan shops.

Funding for the project stopped in 2016 and Mr Lucano has been protesting ever since. In August, he went on a hunger strike to show his opposition to the lack of funding for the scheme.

The project led to him being featured on Fortune magazine’s world’s 50 greatest leaders in 2016.

The magistrate investigating the case, Locri Domenico Croce, rejected seven of the nine charges against the mayor, including those of fraud, abuse of office, embezzlement, forgery and corruption. He argued that witnesses were unreliable and the mayor had not profited financially from the deal. However, he stated that resources had not been administered in a transparent manner.

Mr Lucano, who survived an assassination attempt in 2009, said in a statement last week: “I never earned anything, nor did I take money from anyone. Public money in Riace was only used for projects relating to migrants and to ease suffering, for job opportunities, integration and to give a better life to asylum seekers.”

Riace’s population of 2,000 currently includes 300 migrants. Italy has been witnessing tougher immigration enforcement since the new coalition government came to power in June. Interior minister Matteo Salvini said in a tweet that with the arrest the government was declaring “war on immigration business”.

Earlier this month, the government approved a decree drafted by Mr Salvini that will make it easier to expel migrants.

The former government produced a plan to deal with the refugee crisis in 2017, allocating a budget of €4.2bn, with 65% going to migrant reception centres, which host some 170,000 people.

The centres are run by co-operatives or NGOs, which can receive between €25-€35 per day for each person they provide with lodging, clothes and other services, such as legal aid, psychological support or language classes.

Mr Salvini aims to lower the amount allocated to social co-operatives working to integrate refugees. These social co-ops provide services to 18,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants across 220 welcome centres and 170 housing structures.

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