October 1, 2019 / 6:22 PM / 2 months ago

Exclusive: Italian prosecutors widen probe over safety of Atlantia-operated bridges - sources

MILAN (Reuters) - Italian prosecutors have widened an inquiry into suspected safety breaches at subsidiaries of Atlantia ATL.MI to include more employees and viaducts than they identified last month, two sources close to the investigation told Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: People stand on Ponte delle Retelle bridge as they observe ceremonies marking the first anniversary of the collapse of a motorway Morandi Bridge that killed 43 people in Genoa, Italy, August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Massimo Pinca/File Photo

The safety inquiry follows a 2018 Genoa bridge collapse which killed 43 people and has led Italy’s co-ruling 5-Star Movement to call for the motorway concession of Atlantia, the biggest Italian toll-road operator, to be revoked.

Prosecutors said on Sept. 13 they had arrested three employees at Atlantia’s motorway unit Autostrade per l’Italia and its maintenance unit SPEA for allegedly falsifying safety reports on two other bridges after the Genoa disaster.

Police also said last month that five other people working for the companies and one consultant from a company outside the Atlantia group were temporarily banned from holding office.

Genoa prosecutors have since placed a total of around 20 people, including the nine already made public, under formal investigation and are examining the records of nine bridges on the Atlantia network, two sources told Reuters.

Under Italian law the investigation is preliminary and may not lead to any charges.

A Sept. 13 arrest warrant for the nine people initially placed under investigation, issued by Genoa prosecutors and viewed by Reuters, names both Autostrade and SPEA as responsible for misleading ministry inspectors about the safety of some parts of the motorway network.

The warrant said the choices of the employees under investigation were guided by “strictly commercial logic, which took precedence over the aim of guaranteeing the security of motorway infrastructure”.

The two subsidiaries of Atlantia, which is controlled by the Benetton family famous for its fashion clothing label, are also formal suspects in the Genoa bridge inquiry but have denied wrongdoing, saying regular, state-supervised inspections had indicated the it was safe. (Full Story) (Full Story)

Atlantia, which is not a formal suspect in the road safety report investigation, declined to comment on Tuesday and referred to previous statements issued on Sept. 16 by Autostrade which said there were no safety problems at its viaducts, which had also been inspected by an external maintenance company.

Atlantia’s long-serving CEO Giovanni Castellucci resigned on Sept. 17 after the Benetton family said it was shocked by what was emerging from the safety controls investigation.

Atlantia’s shares remain 14% below the level seen on the eve of the Genoa bridge collapse, due to concerns over the future of the concession for Autostrade to operate 3,000 km of motorways in Italy, which generates a third of its core profit.

WIDER INQUIRY

The safety investigation grew out of a separate criminal inquiry into the Genoa disaster. This included prosecutors bugging Atlantia employees’ phones and uncovered evidence of allegedly false safety reports on the network, the arrest warrant shows.

Prosecutors have also widened the scope of their safety investigation to include Atlantia’s overall risk management practices, including how it oversees safety at its units, one of the sources told Reuters.

Last week they seized documents at Atlantia’s Rome headquarters to better understand its internal controls and its oversight of Autostrade and SPEA, the source said.

Atlantia on Tuesday confirmed prosecutors had taken documents, without giving details.

Among the allegations in the warrant is that SPEA employees approved the transit of an exceptionally heavy truck over a damaged bridge on the basis of a false safety report issued by several SPEA employees.

SPEA and Autostrade are both listed as formal suspects in the investigation, the arrest warrant shows.

SPEA, which in a statement on Sept. 18 said it had suspended the employees targeted by recent arrests, did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.

Editing by Alexander Smith

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