REPORTING FROM ROME -- Umberto Bossi, the iconic founder and leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant and onetime separatist Northern League, stepped down Thursday amid charges that party funds were diverted to his family for personal use.
Bossi told his party's newspaper, La Padania, that he was resigning for the good of the Northern League but that "whoever thinks I'm going to disappear can forget it."
The news of allegedly illegal financial practices in the party that was born partly as an antidote to Italy's endemic corruption rocked the political scene here. Bossi's party has been a key ally of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who relied on the Northern League's support to keep his center-right coalition in power for the better part of two decades.
Berlusconi was forced to step down in November as a result of Italy's financial crisis.
Prosecutors are investigating Francesco Belsito, the Northern League's treasurer, on allegations of fraud and illegal party financing. Detectives reportedly found a file belonging to Belsito in a safe in the parliament building in Rome with the title “The Family,” which allegedly contained documents regarding the financing of Bossi family expenses. The investigation also has relied on wiretapped conversations, reports said.
Citing leaks from the investigation, Italian news reports said Belsito is believed to have diverted party money to Bossi's family to pay for nonpolitical expenditures such as the remodeling of their home near Lake Maggiore; cars, including a Porsche for one of Bossi’s four sons; lawyer fees connected to legal problems of another son; and travel and entertainment.
Party money was also allegedly used to buy a villa in Sardinia for a close Bossi political ally and family friend.
Bossi, 70, who has not been charged with wrongdoing, has denied ever using party funds for personal use. He is staying on as the Northern League's ceremonial president, but the position carries little power.
The revelations shocked Northern League supporters, who for two decades have devotedly followed the gruff-speaking, cigar-chomping Bossi as he took on his adversaries, frequently using insults and lewd gestures. Many gathered outside party headquarters with placards to show their support for him.
Bossi founded the party in 1991 on an anti-immigrant, secessionist and anti-central government platform that appealed to many in the north of Italy, the industrial powerhouse of the nation's economy. The league has since abandoned its original goal of independence but argues for greater regional autonomy within Italy.
Bossi was a crucial political partner to Berlusconi but finally broke with him when Berlusconi joined opposition parties to back the current technocratic government headed by Mario Monti. Bossi and the Northern League have been highly critical of Monti and his program of severe spending cuts, tax increases, and pension and labor reforms to get Italy’s moribund economy going again.
Bossi suffered a stroke in 2004, after which he made a remarkable recovery and political comeback. He was left with slurred speech and difficulty moving, and analysts said that his hyper-vigilant wife became a key player in party decisions.
Analysts said Bossi’s resignation signified an uncertain future for the Northern League. A triumvirate will take over the direction of the party temporarily, including Roberto Maroni, who was once Bossi’s protege but who has lately taken steps to challenge his leadership.
Bossi has worked hard to groom his son Renzo, 24, as his successor, but many see the young man as inadequate to the task. “It will be very difficult to replace Bossi," longtime senior Northern League official Giancarlo Galan said.
The developments brought to the forefront the question of public financing of political parties, which was halted after a popular referendum in 1993 but returned through the back door under the title of “electoral reimbursements.”
Little accountability is required by parties in the spending of millions of dollars in public funding. The treasurer of the now-defunct Margherita party is under investigation on allegations of having spent millions of euros on villas, vacations and other personal expenses.
-- Sarah Delaney
Photo: Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League, one of Italy's major political forces, shown in March 2010. Credit: Giuseppe Cacace / AFP/Getty Images