When the Mafia serves coffee in the courthouse

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The 31 counts against the crew arrested last week in the southern Italian city of Potenza included mafia association, murder and extortion. But it was an allegation in count No. 19 that was perhaps the most incredible: The suspects were accused of operating a cafe right inside the courthouse.

Every day for more than three years, prosecutors and investigators building criminal cases sipped cappuccino and ate eggplant Parmesan at the courthouse eatery, which the authorities now say was managed by a powerful clan of mobsters.

“They were in our home,” said Francesco Curcio, the chief prosecutor in Potenza.

The clan, led by a local family, operated the cafe as a front, according to court documents, to “potentially launder money and have a base inside the most important justice court in the district to acquire information.”

Hidden cameras installed by investigators captured the cafe’s staff bowing in respect to the boss of the family and consoling one another when his right-hand man was arrested on drug trafficking charges, according to prosecutors and court documents.

The revelations in Potenza, capital of the southern region of Basilicata, have fueled concerns that criminal organizations are getting bigger and bolder. “Something is clearly not working in the anti-Mafia controls,” Curcio said at a news conference.

The prosecution team’s decision to keep the three-year investigation secret from colleagues has also touched a raw nerve inside the courthouse. Curcio acknowledged that it was “a difficult situation from a human perspective.”

Prosecutors who knew the cafe was under investigation would grab a coffee and chat with staff to keep up appearances. But most did not know.

That meant investigative secrets in other cases could have been spilled over espresso, the prosecution team acknowledged. But, they said, warning courthouse colleagues would have jeopardized the entire inquiry. The team said that it had just had to hope fellow prosecutors were discreet in what they said at the cafe.

Some lawyers were less than understanding.

“So many police, prosecutors, carabinieri went up to the bar to have coffee,” said Davide Pennacchio, a local lawyer. “And who knows how many things they could have said?”

It was actually an episode involving Pennacchio that helped set off the inquiry.

Pennacchio and a partner had competed for the same courthouse cafe contract, filing an appeal after they lost. He then received, in a corridor of the courthouse, a warning from a clan member to back off, according to court documents.

Investigators who followed up began to suspect that the new bar ownership was a front. The police installed bugs and cameras in the cafe and started wiretapping suspects, getting a clearer picture of the family’s activities. Among other things, they said, the clan controlled a gaming cafe and was behind a jewelry store theft in the city.

Prosecutors said that they let the mobsters think they were outsmarting the authorities.

“If a criminal from another group goes there and sees they are managing the courthouse cafe,” Curcio said, “they must think, ‘Man these guys are smart.’ ”

He said that “criminal prestige” was probably the main reason that the family had sought control of the cafe.

Basilio Pitasi, a lawyer for Saverio Riviezzi, who the prosecutors claim is the clan’s boss, said that the family was not a Mafia organization. He added that Riviezzi had already been cleared of such allegations in the past.

Pitasi said that the so-called Riviezzi clan — which authorities say ran the cafe — did not control any territory or operate “diffused intimidation,” two elements that he said were fundamental to defining a mafia organization.

Reverend Marcello Cozzi, president of a think tank, the Center for Studies and Research on the South, said that the Mafia families in Basilicata, including the Riviezzis, are “young compared to other Mafias in Italy that go back over 150 years.”

“But,” he added “they kill, extort and infiltrate the economy.”

Pennacchio, the lawyer who lost out on the cafe contract, said that a friend had found one more problem, with the eatery’s roast chicken: “Hard as plastic,” he said.

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