The Romanian state, 'Ndrangheta's business partner

  The so-called Anti-mafia Romanian prosecutor’s office (officially, a department of the General Prosecutor’s Office in charge of investigating organized crime and terrorism related activities), when confronted with names of ‘Ndrangheta members convicted in Italy and having businesses in Romania, preferred to bluntly say to journalists doing research for this project “it’s none of your business, this is classified information”. So classified that it’s inexistent. It’s the only logical explanation for the complete lack of response of the Romanian authorities to years and years of Italian “mafiosi” free movement in this eastern European country. In this picture, free movement stands for complete freedom to do business, to bid for public money, to be awarded huge public contracts, to not comply with the law, to break competition rules, to be uncontrollable. Mafia helps the PM’s wife get public money Granchi SRL (Ponte di Ferro, Italy) rose to fame in 2017 when its connections to ‘Ndrangheta controlled companies were revealed by Italian prosecutors. At the time, the Romanian branch of the company had already been active for three years. Unsuspected by authorities (although it is uncertain if its business partners were as innocent), the Romanian Granchi SRL bid for public contracts many times (roads building, water distribution networks construction and more). However, there wasn’t a single bid to be  placed by Granchi SRL alone, there was always a consortium of companies that made an offer for public contracts. In 2014, for instance, Granchi contributed with its generous turnover to the success of a small company. As specified by the financial contract awarding criteria section, the total turnover of the consortium that bid for the water distribution network expansion in Busteni (a small town in the mountainous area of the Prahova county) should have been more than 12.3 million EUR for the previous three years. Surprisingly, the consortium leader was a company, EN Electric Proiect Office SRL, that had a turnover for the previous three years (the first three years of its existence nonetheless) of around 1.2 million EUR (which was ten times less than the minimum allowed figure), whereas Granchi SRL could boast a turnover over 14 million EUR. Eventually, the contract was awarded to the consortium led by EN Electric Proiect Office SRL. But why would an experienced big turnover company such as Granchi accept to support a small company that wasn’t even allowed to compete by itself? Maybe that’s all due to the fact that EN Electric Proiect Office SRL was no ordinary company: the Minister of Industry’s wife was working at the time for the company’s department that was in charge of the bidding. Later on, in 2017, that Minister became the Prime Minister of Romania. His name is Mihai Tudose. As it turned out, a company such as the Italian owned Granchi SRL knew well enough how to find the promising local companies in Romania. Another example of a lovely political intertwining with the public contracts is the activity of a company based in Focsani, the capital of the Vrancea county. For years and years, the county council (the local government) has been presided by the powerful social-democrat leader Marian Oprisan. One of the companies preferred not only by the county council, but also by the Focsani mayor (totally loyal to Oprisan), is Blue Konnyk SRL, owned by a former local councillor politically connected to the social-democrats. In many situations, Blue Konnyk was supported by Granchi to compete for and be awarded public contracts in Vrancea. The Romanian Granchi SRL was registered in 2014 as a subsidiary of the Italian company with the same name and deposited balance sheets only in 2014 and 2015, although the company was officially closed in 2018. During the two years, the turnover was only 10,000 EUR (in total). In other words, Granchi SRL based in Romania used the Italian Granchi turnover figures to take part in biding consortia. What competition rules? When Rossano Granchi (the businessman associated with ‘Ndrangheta interests, according to Italian prosecutors), the owner of the Italian Granchi SRL, decided to set up a Romanian subsidiary, his adviser and co-owner of the Romanian company was Franco Sabatino.

Rossano Granchi. Source: Facebook
Rossano Granchi. Source: Facebook

The latter is also Italian and has been in Romania for many years now. In fact, Sabatino plays the role of the master mind in this Italian scheme: according to his own words, he’s the one who identifies the Romanian public tenders that could be interesting for Italian companies and then contacts those companies and tries to get them to bid in association or by themselves. Sabatino admitted he had shares in the Romanian Granchi SRL and also that the company had “some issues” in Italy but didn’t want to go deeper into the story, instead pretended that “every big company in Italy has this kind of issues, a suspicion is enough to open a file.” No surprise, then, that Research Consorzio Stabile Societa’ Consortile ARL (in association with Coimpredil Societa’ Consortile ARL – both Italian, both getting advice from Sabatino), which was awarded a four million EUR contract in Iasi (NE of Romania) for the restoration of a historical building, was linked with Cosa Nostra by the Italian media which  wrote that Research Consorzio Stabile Societa’ Consortile ARL was awarded contracts in Pompeii archaeological site following a secret deal leading to the Cosa Nostra boss, Matteo Messina Denaro. What makes Sabatino a very successful consigliere is the way he uses permutations of companies he guides/controls. The setup is not complicated: a handful of such companies bid for the same public contract – some in association, the others in competition with those in connection. So one may end up having three, four or more Italian bidders competing for the same contract thus controlling the whole procedure. It’s not uncommon at all for two companies in association at an auction to switch sides and be in competition at another. Obviously, this raises many suspicions concerning the competition rules that may be broken.

Franco Sabatino. Source: Facebook
Franco Sabatino. Source: Facebook

‘Ndrangheta boss in a communist apartment in Bucharest Franco Sabatino is a real magnet for suspect Italian companies. In fact, “suspect” is a very polite word to use in some cases. Carmine Sarcone, for instance, was sentenced in June to ten years in prison for criminal activities connected to the Reggio Emilia division of ‘Ndrangheta so he’s not just a suspect, he’s a convicted criminal. Carmine Sarcone, the youngest of the Sarcone brothers, assumed full responsibility of the clan leadership following his elder brothers convictions for illegal activities. That Carmine Sarcone set up a company in Bucharest in 2016 in an apartment that accommodated more than 30 other companies (useless to say it is illegal to have such a concentration of companies in a two room apartment: according to Romanian law, every company needs at least a room/office of its own; yet, the Registry of Commerce seemed completely blind to this act of non-compliance with the law).

Italian companies in a communist apartment.
Italian companies in a communist apartment.

A few years ago, that apartment was also used to accommodate some of Franco Sabatino’s companies. His response to that: the apartment is the property of a legal adviser, Andra Mogos, she had many Italian clients that needed company registering services. At the same time, though, Andra Mogos is not just any other legal adviser: she used to be Sabatino’s partner (in business and in private life), they have a child together, are still business partners (especially when Sabatino needs to register Italian companies in Romania) but don’t live together anymore.

Andra Mogoș. Source: Facebook
Andra Mogoș. Source: Facebook

It is the same apartment that, some years ago, accommodated two betting companies investigated by Italian authorities for money laundry and tax evasion as part of a huge ‘Ndrangheta controlled network of such companies based in Italy, Spain, Malta, Austria and Romania. Sabtino admits having worked with Marco and Claudio Zucco, owners of the two betting companies (“there were some gentlemen from Calabria, indeed”), but swears he knew nothing about their background and illegal activities. The Sarcones were not new to Romania in 2016: in 2004, one of the elder brothers of Carmine, Gianluigi Sarcone (also sentenced to prison in Italia for activities related to the Reggio Emilia clan of ‘Ndrangheta), registered a company in Romania. His associates set up a dozen of companies in Romania, exposed by the Italian Financial Guard (“The puss in boots” operation) in 2010 – 2011 to be providers of intensive agriculture products sold as bio products in Italy.

Gianluigi Sarcone and his Bulgarian wife, Viktoria Todorova Gujgulova. Source: Facebook
Gianluigi Sarcone and his Bulgarian wife, Viktoria Todorova Gujgulova. Source: Facebook

According to Paolo Sartori, ex-Interpol liaison officer for Eastern Europe, now a high rank Italian Police officer, ‘Ndrangheta is specialized in getting public contracts and doesn’t necessarily aim at having profits, instead its main goal is laundering money that is the result of drug smuggling and other illegal activities.

Paolo Sartori
Paolo Sartori

This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu