Arrests made in probe linked to 2018 Genoa bridge collapse

Former Autostrade CEO Giovanni Castellucci was put under house arrest. PHOTO: REUTERS

ROME (BLOOMBERG) - The former chief executive officer of the world's biggest highway operator was arrested as part of an Italian investigation into road safety following the collapse of a bridge in Genoa two years ago that triggered a national outcry.

Giovanni Castellucci, who built Autostrade per l'Italia SpA over two decades before his resignation in 2019, was put under house arrest by the country's financial police on Wednesday (Nov 11).

He is one of six current and former executives targeted in the probe into highway barriers and among three who are now confined to their homes, prosecutors said.

The catastrophe involving the 1960s-era Morandi Bridge in the Italian port city in August 2018 left 43 people dead as cars and trucks plunged onto railroad tracks and streets below.

Castellucci, 61, who also led Autostrade's parent company Atlantia SpA until last year, became the lightning rod for public and political anger over the tragedy.

The six people have been charged with fraud and putting the safety of transportation in danger, according to a police statement. Prosecutors argue managers were aware of deficiencies in the highway barriers.

Autostrade "was extremely profitable and generous with dividend payments thanks also to an aggressive strategy based on a systematic reduction of maintenance works on its highway network", the prosecutors said, according to a copy of the arrest warrant seen by Bloomberg.

Autostrade said the barriers issue was already solved in 2019. Castellucci and his lawyers did not respond to Bloomberg's request for comment.

Atlantia, whose shares dropped as much as 5.2 per cent in Milan trading, didn't have an immediate comment. The news was earlier reported by Italian media, including Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica.

Wider probe

The Genoa viaduct was operated by Autostrade and rebuilt this year, though it remains a symbol of Italy's crumbling infrastructure and the apparent political paralysis in addressing it.

The authorities started an investigation into whether the company's maintenance of toll roads was carried out properly. It then widened the probe to include the entire toll road network and the safety of its viaducts and tunnels.

Mr Giancarlo Cancelleri, Italy's deputy infrastructure minister and a member of the Five Star Movement, said the police action vindicated his party's push to investigate.

"This is an absurd situation," said Mr Cancelleri, whose group is the biggest party in the governing coalition.

"People have pocketed all the money from toll licences without doing proper maintenance."

The arrests come as the billionaire Benetton family, which controls Atlantia, is seeking a way to end a dispute with the Italian government lasting more than two years on the future of its Autostrade business.

The Benettons agreed in July to cede control of its unit to a group led by Italian state-backed lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti SpA, or CDP.

Atlantia rejected a new bid by CDP last month and said it will continue talks to facilitate a "satisfactory, binding offer" by no later than Nov 30.

Mr Cancelleri said the investigation has no bearing on the negotiations.

"But for us it means we need to reach a decision in a reasonable period of time," he said.

Fall from grace

Before failing from grace following the Genoa bridge collapse, Castellucci was considered among the top Italian executives.

He joined Atlantia in 2001 as general manager and was named CEO in 2006.

Under his stewardship, the company diversified away from Italian highways to airports and made acquisitions abroad, turning it into the world's biggest toll road operator.

Businesses ranged from Chile to Spain, the tunnel between France and Britain, and Rome airports.

Atlantia's stock market value quadrupled over seven years to almost €24 billion (S$38.1 billion) in 2018. It's currently worth just over half that.

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