ROME – Franco Fiorito, a member of the regional council of Lazio, the Italian region that includes Rome, was known ironically among his friends as Batman. It was a nickname he earned when he managed to fall off a Harley Davidson still on a kickstand.
But rather than a superhero, he looks like an actor out of “The Sopranos” with his slicked-back hairstyle, striped double-breasted suit, bulky figure and bigger than life personality.
Fiorito, a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (PDL), was accused earlier this month of embezzling at least $1.5 million of public funds to pay for everything from oyster dinners, to hotels, aides and apartments.
Fiorito, who has since resigned, fought the allegations by telling investigators that fellow party members behaved worse than he did – putting the spotlight on regional president Renata Polverini.
The scandal proved too much for Polverini, who resigned on Monday, and damaged the reputation of Berlusconi’s already weakened party.
She denied allegations of any wrong-doing on her part, but admitted that the scandal had exposed infighting within the PDL party and had stripped the regional council of some legitimacy.
But most importantly, it stands as a symbol of a political class that has lost touch with the electorate, and carries on living a lavish lifestyle financed with public funds at a time when most Italians struggle to get by.
“Why did they call him Batman? He sounds more like the joker to me,” said Carla Cecchini, a receptionist from Rome who was waiting at a bus stop in Rome on Wednesday morning. “He is not even that smart. We know they are all thieves, but this guy didn’t even try to hide it. He is shameless.”
Toga party photos
Apparently Fiorito is not as brazen as another member of the regional council.
Only days ago, pictures emerged of a lavish toga party organized in 2010 by Carlo de Romanis, a 32-year- old member of Berlusconi’s party.
Romanis organized the party to celebrate his election to the regional council and his return to Rome after eight years working at the European Parliament in Brussels.
The theme of the party, “Ulysses returns home and fights his enemies,” was taken seriously by his 2,000 guests. They showed up dressed up as ancient Roman maidservants, gladiators, patricians in laurel wreaths and minotaurs, drinking from ancient-looking jars. Pictures emerged of guests feeding each other grapes, as well as men wearing pig masks fondling female guests.
A party worthy of the last days of ancient Rome, when the narcissistic and decadent elite kept enjoying a lavish lifestyle while the empire was falling apart all around them.
The similarities might not be so far-fetched. Even though Carlo “Ulysses De Romanis” insists the $30,000 he paid for the party came from his own pocket, it still upset many Italians who are tired of seeing the political elite enjoying the lifestyle of emperors while they feel the strain of the recent austerity measures and the economic crisis.
Alex Biasco, a DJ in Milan, told NBC News that the Italian public is partly to blame as well. He said they like to complain about the widespread abuse of office, without acting to bring about any changes.
“Look at the Spanish: they fill the squares in Madrid to demand the resignation of unfit politicians,” said Biasco. “While in Italy we have had politicians who stole for decades, who are corrupt to the core…and yet, Italians only fill their squares when their soccer teams win.”
Luca Orsenigo, a 38-year-old telecom manager from Milan, had a similar complaint.
“We got to this point because we deserve it. Instead of going to prison, these people are invited to defend themselves on talk-shows," said Orsenigo, referring to the many TV appearances Fiorito enjoyed after the scandal broke. "As long as these people go unpunished, nothing will change”
More proof of widespread corruption among Italian governmental institutions came on Tuesday, when the head of the postal service in the Italian Senate was arrested for cocaine trafficking, police said.
Orlando Ranaldi, 53, is accused of being part of a criminal gang 10 Italians and Albanians who ran a cocaine ring in southern Rome. While not a politician, Orlando held a managerial position in Italy’s upper house of parliament.
"I only hope that he didn't push inside the Senate," Senator Felice Belisario of the Italy of Values party told Reuters.
Roberta, a housewife from Rome who gave only her first name, jumped to her own conclusions.
“They are all living the high life, and I can’t believe the guy wasn’t doing ‘favors’ to the political elite,” she said.
The recent revelations of Champagne-filled toga parties, embezzlement of public funds and cocaine heists have only contributed to widening the gap between the political elite and the electorate.
“Once again we are showing the world how corrupt we are. But Italians, thank God, are not all like Batman and Ulysses,” Alessandra Scolaro, a website designer and member of the People of Freedom party from the Veneto region, told NBC News. “The best Italians are those who wake up every morning and go to work. And those who make us proud by raising the bar of Italian creativity in the arts and fashion industries. This is the real Italy.”
While Italians aren’t likely to descend to the squares to protest and try to get rid of the political class the hard way, they will have the opportunity to bring change in the general elections next spring.
More world stories from NBC News:
- Libya leader to NBC: Film had 'nothing to do with' US Consulate attack
- Royal censorship? BBC 'sorry' for daring to report queen's comments
- China brings 1st aircraft carrier into service, joining 9-nation club
- Two baby gorillas rescued in Congo; escalation of smuggling feared
- Taiwanese ships clash with Japanese coast guard over disputed islands
- Robbers try to blow up ATM, but blow up entire bank instead
- Class wars: 'Gate-gate' scandal swamps UK PM
- Religious pilgrimages: a multi-billion dollar industry
- Ancient land of 'Beringia' gets protection from US, Russia
- Stay informed: Sign up for our newsletter