A judge ordered two former auditors at dairy giant Parmalat to stand trial for false accounting and market rigging, handing down the first indictments in the massive fraud scandal that stripped many Italians of their savings.
At the closed-door hearing Tuesday, consumer groups also filed for compensation on behalf of thousands of small investors. The fast-track hearing in Milan marked the start of the legal process to assign blame for the demise of Parmalat, long held up as a standard of innovative, family-run Italian business before it crashed in December.
Judge Cesare Tacconi indicted Maurizio Bianchi and Lorenzo Penca, who both worked at auditing firm Grant Thornton’s former Italian office. They are set to stand trial at the end of January.
Penca, the former head of the company’s Italian branch, and Bianchi, his partner, were arrested Dec. 31 and later released.
Prosecutors accuse them of having falsely certified Parmalat’s balance sheets and of having proposed “fictitious operations” needed to carry out Parmalat’s fraud.
Salvatore Stivala, a lawyer for the two men, said the decision came as no surprise because he had requested it himself. By opting for a fast-track trial to start in January, the two will have a chance to defend themselves sooner, he said.
Milan prosecutors have asked for trials for 27 others, ranging from the dairy giant’s founder Calisto Tanzi to former company financial officers and lawyers, and for three institutions: the Italian branches of Bank of America and auditor Deloitte & Touche SpA, and Grant Thornton’s former Italian branch.
Alleged crimes include market rigging, providing false information to auditors and blocking the work of stock market regulator Consob. More hearings are scheduled in the coming weeks.
Consumer groups say up to 135,000 investors lost money in Parmalat’s crash. Many are modest Italian savers who pin their hopes on the courts and on Enrico Bondi, the government-appointed turnaround expert trying to relaunch Parmalat.
Though some investors fear they have little chance of seeing compensation, one retired couple said they hope to recover most of their 78,000 euro ($96,000) investment in Parmalat.
“I hope that Bondi can help us,” said Amalia Salario, who waited outside the courtroom with her husband Alfredo Pavese. “I beg him on my knees.”