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Licio Gelli, Italian Financier and Cabal Leader, Dies at 96

Licio Gelli, a buccaneering Italian financier and self-professed fascist who was implicated in terrorist crimes, scandals and a secret society that, with him as its grandmaster, was accused of plotting a right-wing coup, died on Tuesday at his villa in Arezzo, Italy. He was 96.

His death was reported by the nation's news media, and his funeral on Thursday, attended mostly by family and friends, was covered by Italian television.

Mr. Gelli never wavered in his convictions. In a 2008 television interview, he declared, "I was born under fascism, I studied with fascism, I fought for fascism, I am a fascist and I will die a fascist."

His near-mythic ignominy evoked popular fictional conspiracy tales, like Dan Brown's novel "The Da Vinci Code" and the movie "The Godfather Part III," and he personified what Italians encapsulate as "dietrologia" — the reflexive, widely held suspicion that behind any official government narrative lurks a more sinister explanation.

But if Mr. Gelli was a scoundrel to many Italians, to others he held out the promise of stability in turbulent times, when the Communist Party was advancing at the polls and the economy was declining.

He exerted much of his influence as leader of a cabalistic breakaway Masonic lodge, known as Propaganda Due, or P2, which the Freemasons had officially dissolved. The authorities said hundreds of government, business and military leaders had joined the lodge, defying Italy's ban on secret societies.

Investigators linked the group to plots to destabilize the Italian state, to blame leftists for unrest, and to foment a right-wing coup during the "years of lead," when Italy was besieged by terrorist attacks.

The group was suspected of trying to discredit Communists by thwarting the rescue of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1978 by leftist Red Brigades guerrillas. P2 was believed to have had a hand in the horrific bombing of a Bologna train station in 1980 that left 85 dead and that was generally attributed to another neo-fascist group.

And it was investigated in 1982 in the death of Roberto Calvi, a lodge member who was called "God's banker" because of his financial ties to the Vatican's bank. Mr. Calvi's body was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London — a suicide, the authorities ruled.

Mr. Gelli was convicted of bank fraud and obstruction of justice. He mysteriously escaped from prison or house arrest twice and served the remainder of his term in his villa, a 30-room redoubt near a 15th-century church in the Tuscan hills.

There he was found to have a gold thumb when nearly $2 million in bullion was discovered in 1998 in the terrace garden, hidden in terra cotta flower pots beneath begonias and geraniums.

In "God's Banker," his 1983 biography of Mr. Calvi, Rupert Cornwell wrote, "Italy, it must be recorded with honesty, albeit bemusement, has produced few more remarkable individuals this century than Licio Gelli."

Mr. Gelli (pronounced jelly) was born on April 21, 1919, in Pistoia, north of Florence, in Tuscany. He married the former Wanda Vannaci. She died in 1993, and their three children, Raffaello, Maria Rosa and Maurizio, survive him, as does his second wife, the former Gabriella Vasile. (Another daughter died in an automobile accident.)

Mr. Gelli joined Benito Mussolini's fascist Blackshirts in fighting for Generalissimo Francisco Franco in Spain's Civil War in the 1930s. He served as an Italian liaison to Nazi Germany during World War II, then switched sides to support Communist partisans in his native Pistoia Province.

After the war, he fled to Argentina, where he became a confidant of the dictator Juan Perón. Returning to Italy, he became successful as a financier and self-made industrialist manufacturing mattresses.

Mr. Gelli emerged into the public eye in 1981 as Italian investigators were focusing on Mr. Calvi, who had presided over the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, Italy's largest private bank, and on Michele Sindona, another banker who had been accused in the failure of the Franklin National Bank in the United States. (Mr. Sindona was later convicted of murder and was himself murdered, by poisoning, in prison.)

Searching for the names of businessmen who had illegally exported cash, the investigators found instead — in a leather suitcase in Mr. Gelli's mattress factory — evidence of what amounted to a right-wing shadow government composed of 962 power brokers led by Mr. Gelli. The group, they said, sought to "exert anonymous and surreptitious control" of the country.

The roster included Mr. Calvi and Mr. Sindona, whom the authorities described as puppets of Mr. Gelli, enlisted to help impose what the group called a "Plan for Democratic Rebirth."

When so many government ministers and other officials were revealed to be members of the lodge, Prime Minister Arnaldo Forlani's government fell. His successor declared that Italy was facing a "moral emergency."

Mr. Gelli was arrested in Geneva in 1982 on charges of passport fraud. The authorities said he had gone there to withdraw millions of dollars from his Swiss accounts.

A year later, just as he was about to be extradited to Italy to face charges involving the Bologna bombing, the bank failure and financing right-wing terrorism, he escaped from a Swiss prison hospital with a guard's help and fled to South America. He returned to Switzerland in 1987 and was extradited to Italy under extraordinary security.

Mr. Gelli was absolved of any association with the Bologna bombing but sentenced to five years in prison for obstructing the investigation and 18 and a half years for his role in the Banco Ambrosiano fraud. (His Swiss accounts had been linked to more than $1 billion that the bank was missing.) He later received a 17-year sentence on obstruction charges in a political conspiracy case involving 15 other P2 members.

Mr. Gelli was a "man of Neronic wealth and ways," as the writer Nick Tosches described him in "Power on Earth," his 1986 biography of Mr. Sindona. But Mr. Gelli's lawyer, Raphael Giorgetti, suggested on Thursday that his client had merely been a "scapegoat" for the government's own failings.

Most of the lodge members escaped punishment. Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, who was president of the Vatican's bank, was indicted as an accessory in the Banco Ambrosiano collapse. Citing diplomatic immunity, the Vatican refused to comply with an Italian arrest warrant for the archbishop, but it paid more than $200 million to Banco Ambrosiano's creditors.

Mr. Gelli, placed under house arrest because of ill health, slipped away again in 1998. He was arrested four months later in Cannes, France, and because of his physical condition was allowed to resume his confinement at his villa in Arezzo. He survived there for another 17 years, completing his sentence in the meantime.

[Source: By Sam Roberts, The New York Times, 18Dec15]

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Corruption and Organized Crime
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