Source: The Weekend Australian, 6-7 February, 1999, p.??
Imperfect numbers: a blindfolded child at a lottery draw in Milan and, below, a woman fills in a Lotto form shortly after the scandal broke. Italians, who spend squillions each year on Lotto, have been rocked, Clare Pedrick reports from Rome, by revelations of systematic lottery rigging FOR a nation whose passion for gambling is second only to its devotion to children, the discovery was doubly upsetting. Italians have been shocked to learn that the lottery millions of them play each week in the hope of landing a life-changing windfall is not so much a game of chance as an elaborate confidence trick. Almost as distressing has been the revel- ation that the huge lottery fraud was rigged using children, who had been imperfectly blindfolded and coached to pick out pre- arranged numbers. Detectives investigating the scandal say they believe many of Italy's weekly lottery draws have been rigged for at least the past 13 years. Investigators put illicit winnings from the scam at more than 133 billion lire ($133 million), but the true figure is likely to be far higher as cases continue to emerge. The news has come as a cruel blow in a country where gambling is a national obsession, on a par with soccer and eating. The average Italian family spends a million lire a year on trying to win the sort of money that will enable its members to give up work and live in luxury. A hefty share of the annual 20,000 billion lire spent by Italians on betting goes on the Lotto, a lottery game based on predicting a winning series of numbers, which are extracted each week in 10 Italian cities. The police inquiry into the running of this most time-honoured of institutions has so far centred on Milan, where 13 people have been arrested. But the investigation is spreading rapidly to other Italian cities, with lotteries in Home, Genoa and Venice falling under heavy suspicion. Ironically, the plan to manipulate lottery results was dreamed up by the very group of officials appointed to oversee fair play in the draw - members of the Milanese finance police force. Architect of the fraud was Giuseppe Aliberti, 58, an employee at the finance police, who charged a percentage in return for tip-offs on upcoming winning numbers. Children aged between eight and 10, who are traditionally used in the Italian lottery to fish the winning numbers out of a revolving drum, were primed to select certain pre-arranged numbers. The ruse was engineered with the help of a faulty blindfold, which afforded the child some degree of vision. Hollow metal balls containing the perti- nent numbers were polished so they would be shinier than the others and would feel different to the touch. After the game, the children were given a toy and told to keep quiet. Some of them were relatives of officials caught up in the fraud. The rigged lottery system appears to have started out as a relatively low-key operation, aimed at earning Aliberti and his accomplices some extra cash for themselves and their families. Often, the fraudsters would pass on the winning numbers to their friends and relatives, who could then be sure of coming away with jackpot winnings. A colleague of Aliberti even distributed winning numbers to family members in the run-up to Christmas, telling them this was his present to them. On one occasion, a punter in Brescia won eight billion lire. Police have yet to identify the winner, but it is known that some of the corrupt officials involved in the ring had family in that northern Italian city. The game quickly spiralled out of hand when organised crime gangsters got word of the racket and demanded to be allowed in on it. Members of the Sacra Corona Unita, an emerging but particularly vicious crime syndicate from the south-eastern region of Apulia, insisted on being supplied with the lucky numbers. They are believed to have ploughed most of their winnings into buying narcotics for drug trafficking. When Aliberti and his accomplices tried to call a halt to the increasingly dangerous game, they and their families were bom- barded with death threats. One member of the ring awoke one morning to find his Mercedes saloon-a suspiciously flashy car for a clerk in the finance police squad- pitted with bullet holes as a warning. High-ranking finance police officers were equally unwilling to be left out. When one of Aliberti's superiors stumbled on the racket, he reportedly blackmailed his underling, demanding that he too be given a cut. When investigators finally caught up with Aliberti, he was almost relieved to confess everything. "I didn't make that much money out of it, but others did," he reportedly told police as he and his family were spirited away into hiding, to protect them from vengeful mobsters. "It all got out of control." The crooked finance police official has already spent most of the estimated 500 million lire he made from the rigged lottery. The bulk of it reportedly went on buying an apartment for his grown-up son. Several worried relatives of officials involved in the ring have come forward to hand over their it/-gotten gains. So far, police have retrieved a total of 30 billion lire, including one billion lire recovered after a bank manager became suspicious about the sudden flow of cash into the account of one of his clients. Giorgio Raggi, a colleague of Aliberti who also made an estimated 500 million lire, fumed himself over to police when he realised that the ring's mastermind was bound to talk. "He's admitted everything," says his law- yer. "He became caught up in something that was bigger than he was. On some occasions, he was in charge of blindfolding the children. On others, he turned the handle of the revolving drum. Now he is tired and wants to give the money back." Investigators face the long and difficult task of sifting through records to discover the true extent of the lottery racket. Among wins that are being viewed with suspicion are two jackpots of 1.5 billion lire each, both of them in Milan. "By looking at past results, we are trying to uncover cases where players got unusu- ally high winnings," says Inspector Gio- vanni Pepe, one of the police officers heading the inquiry. "But it may not ever be possible to determine precisely which wins were rigged and which ones were genuine." Since the scandal broke, the Italian finance ministry and the organisation that runs the lottery have been inundated with calls from angry Italians, demanding to be compensated for the money they have lost. Some have threatened to take civil action against the State for faring to protect their interests. Yet, incredibly, the rigged lottery affair has done nothing to dent most Italians' mania for playing numbers. Immediately after the first arrests were made, a survey revealed that 55 per cent of people no longer had any faith in the lottery and only 32 per cent would play again in the future. But just days later, the number of bets being placed was as high as ever. Indeed, the stakes being played for the Superena- lotto, a national lottery with a jackpot currently standing at 57 billion lire, soared by 20 per cent on the previous week. In the wake of the Lotto scandal, all lottery draws are now being televised, and officials swear scrutiny will be drastically improved. One proposal under consider- ation even involves using a parrot. There are those who believe that in any case it is time to call a halt to the practice of using youngsters in such a grown-up spectacle. Child psychologists have warned that the children used in the rigged lottery scam may be left with indelible scars. Says Livia Pomodoro, chief magistrate at Milan's Tribunal: "To have used children in this kind of activity, even if nothing illicit was involved, is criminal in any case."
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