A Vatican cleric and two other people have been arrested by Italian police for allegedly trying to smuggle €20m in cash into the country from Switzerland by private jet.
It's the latest scandal to hit the Holy See and broadens an Italian probe into its secretive bank.
Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, already under investigation in a purported money-laundering plot involving the Vatican bank, is accused of corruption and slander stemming from the plot and was being held at a Rome prison, prosecutor Nello Rossi told reporters.
Scarano's arrest came just two days after Pope Francis created a commission of inquiry into the Vatican bank to get to the bottom of the problems that have plagued it for decades and contributed to the impression that it's an unregulated, offshore tax haven.
Prosecutor Rossi said the Swiss operation involved three people, all of whom were arrested yesterday – Scarano, a recently suspended accountant in the Vatican's main finance office, Italian financier Giovanni Carenzio, and Giovanni Zito, who at the time of the plot was a member of the military police's agency for security.
Mr Rossi detailed a remarkable plot – uncovered by telephone wiretaps – in which the three allegedly planned to bring into Italy some €20m in cash that financier Carenzio held in his name in a Swiss bank account.
Scarano's attorney, Silverio Sica, said his client was something of a middleman. The €20m belonged to friends who had given the money to Carenzio to invest but wanted it back.
The plot would presumably enable them to avoid paying customs fees or having any paper trail of such a large amount of money entering Italy.
Rossi identified the friends as members of the Italian shipping family d'Amico and suggested that the money was being held in Switzerland to avoid paying Italian taxes.
According to prosecutors, Zito, the agent, called in sick to his job one day in 2012, rented a private plane and flew with Carenzio to Lucerne, Switzerland. There, Carenzio was supposed to withdraw the cash from his bank account and hand it over to Zito to bring back to Italy. The plan was so detailed there was even to be a car and driver waiting at the airport to bring the money to Scarano's apartment in Rome, Rossi said. The money could have been transported relatively easily in high denominations. If the cash had been withdrawn in the largest denomination – €500 notes – it would have weighed 44 kilograms and fit in a suitcase.
But at a certain point in Lucerne, the deal fell through and Carenzio made excuses that the bank couldn't come up with the money, Mr Rossi said. He declined to identify the bank.
Zito returned to Rome empty-handed but still demanded from Scarano his fee of €600,000 for the operation. Scarano gave him one cheque for €400,000, which he deposited. He gave him a second cheque for €200,000, but in a bid to prevent the cheque from being deposited, reported it as missing, the prosecutor said.
That put a block on the cheque and resulted in Scarano being accused of slander for filing a false report knowing that the check was in Zito's hands, Mr Rossi said. The three are also accused of corruption. If convicted, they could face up to five or six years in prison.