Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Top Vatican official admits spying on banker’s phone

Dom Edgar ministra conferência na Universidade Católica Portuguesa

The sostituto of the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, appeared as a witness before a Vatican City court on Friday, telling judges that he had ordered unsanctioned electronic spying on the phone of the director general of the IOR, the Vatican bank which had rejected a loan application from Peña Parra’s office.

Admitting that he ordered electronic “monitoring” of IOR director Gianfranco Mammì, both in Vatican City and in Italy without a court order, raises questions about the operation of the rule of law at the highest levels of the curia, and accountability among Vatican law enforcement personnel.

When Archbishop Peña Parra took the witness stand March 17, he confirmed prior testimony from former officials at the Secretariat of State, who said that Peña Parra had ordered an investigation of Gianfranco Mammì in retaliation for the bank’s rejection of a demand for a 150 million euro loan, which would have been used to refinance a Vatican Secretariat of State investment into a London property.

The archbishop also confirmed that he contracted a former Italian intelligence officer to put the banker under surveillance, making use of the banker’s mobile phone to keep tabs on Mammi’s activity.

The archbishop said Friday that in 2019 he had “informally” asked the head of the Vatican gendarmerie to investigate and “monitor” the director of the IOR, because he was concerned that Mammì was working with Gianluigi Torzi — the businessman appointed by the Secretariat of State under Peña Parra to convey ownership of the property at 60 Sloane Ave. and who is accused of extorting the Vatican for control of the building.

“I did it, and if necessary I would do it again!” the archbishop told the judges.

The sostituto said the move was justified by the “anomalous attitude” of the bank’s leaders in deciding to reject the loan application, which was flagged by the bank for involving Torzi and Mincione, two men with known business connections to each other who were also flagged on an international money laundering watch list.

The Secretariat of State approached the IOR for the loan in 2019, intending to use it to refinance the high interest mortgage which they acquired along with the London building. IOR leadership rejected the loan application and flagged it as suspicious, leading to pressure from both the secretariat’s leadership and the heads of the Vatican’s own internal financial watchdog the ASIF.

Mammì, together with the bank’s president, Jean Baptitse de Franssu, then took their concerns to Pope Francis, who authorized Vatican prosecutors to open a criminal investigation into the London deal, and the Secretariat of State’s finances.

On Friday, Peña Parra confirmed he had asked Domenic Gianni, the then-head of the Vatican City corps of gendarmes, to put Mammì under surveillance, saying he asked for “a report on the IOR,” but “not on people's lives — for example the general manager’s — which I don't care about.”

Peña Parra justified the action saying he wanted to know “if the IOR had been somehow involved in this [London] affair,” and specifically if Mammì was colluding with Torzi, whose involvement in the deal prompted Mammì and de Franssu to flag the matter to law enforcement in the first place.

The archbishop was also asked about previous statements to the court that his former secretary, Msgr. Mauro Carlino, passed on Mammì’s cell phone number to a “security expert” for the phone to be hacked.

Asked directly if Carlino had acted “independently” in contracting an Italian national and former intelligence agent to target Mammì, Peña Parra said “No, maybe I asked for it.”

The sostituto’s admissions to the court raise a number of questions about his actions, their legality, and the rule of law in Vatican City.

Peña Parra has admitted that he asked Vatican police to put a senior banking official under surveillance “informally” and that “if necessary” he “would do it again.” However, Vatican gendarmes are only permitted to engage in wiretapping and other forms of electronic surveillance when they have received official authorization from a judge.

Even in the investigation of the Secretariat of State itself which led to the current trial, Pope Francis had to personally authorize prosecutors to deploy electronic surveillance, signing judicial warrants which clearly defined the scope of the investigation and the timeline during which lines could be tapped.

The sostiuto’s statements last week, then, appear to show him boasting that he could, did, and would again, use his position to co-opt the organs of law enforcement for illegal surveillance operations if and when he personally deemed it necessary.

This assertion by Peña Parra that he ordered extra-legal surveillance of Mammì by an Italian national in Italy has prompted questions about whether the sostituto could have violated Italian and European Union law on data protection.

The sostituto’s evidence in court also raises questions about his future in office, and if the Vatican City Office of the Promoter of Justice might seek to bring charges against him for abuse of office, as it has done against several other senior officials from the Secretariat of State and the ASIF.

Peña Parra’s immediate predecessor as sostituto, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, is the star defendant in the current trial. But, while Becciu is accused on several financial crimes related to his tenure in office as sostituto, which ended in June of 2018, it is Peña Parra who oversaw several of the more controversial aspects of the London property deal which led to a criminal investigation and trial.

In additional to attempting to pressure the IOR to issue the 150 million euro loan to the secretariat, and retaliate against its staff for resisting, it was Peña Parra who oversaw the appointment of the Italian businessman Gianluigi Torzi to act as the secretariat’s agent in conveying ownership of the building from investment manager Raffaele Mincione, despite the business connections between the two men.

Torzi is on trial in the Vatican for allegedly extorting the Vatican for tens of millions of euros for control of the building at 60 Sloane Ave.

And it was during Peña Parra’s tenure that another Torzi associate, Luciano Capaldo, was left as sole director of the U.K. registered company through which the Secretariat of State controlled the London building once it established ownership.