Italy uncovers major mafia fraud involving EU funds and a dozen public officials

ROME (AFP) - Italian police said on Thursday (May 28) they had dismantled a major organised crime ring involving public works tenders valued at more than 100 million euros (S$156 million), including EU funds.

Eleven public officials were identified among the 63 people targeted in the operation codenamed "Waterfront" against the powerful 'Ndrangheta mafia of southern Italy, Reggio Calabria financial police said in a statement.

Allegations include public tender fraud, abuse of office, and bribery.

"The aim of the criminal association was to guarantee the control of the entire system of public tenders issued by Calabrian contracting entities," the statement said.

Fourteen people were placed under house arrest, while police seized the financial assets of 45 suspects and the corporate assets of 36 companies based not only in the south but also around Rome and Tuscany.

Investigators said the cartel was made up of multiple companies "capable of winning - through auction disturbances facilitated by the mafia - at least 22 public tenders, in systematic fraud against the Calabria Region and the European Community".

Seven of the tenders from 2007 and 2013 involved European Union funds totalling 42 million euros to redevelop urban and waterfront areas near Gioia Tauro, a port city at the toe of Italy's boot.

"Systemic fraud" was also found in related public supplies contracts, police said.

Besides accounting irregularities, investigators also found that complicit contractors had failed to perform quality tests on asphalt to be used in various sports complexes and an underground car park in Gioia Tauro, while concrete intended for sections of highway used "materials of lower quality" than demanded by the contract.

The 'Ndrangheta, centred in the most southern region of Calabria, has surpassed Sicily's more famous Cosa Nostra to become Italy's most powerful mafia group.

A major police sting in December against the group resulted in the arrest of 334 people, including a police colonel and a former MP.