Political chameleon Sergio De Gregorio shows his true colours

Sergio De Gregorio, who took Hong Kong into the heart of Italian intrigue, has demonstrated his mastery in navigating the murky waters of politics

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 4:07am

If the Italian philosopher Machiavelli were still around today, he may well form the view that Sergio De Gregorio was a worthy exponent of the political dark arts.

The former Italian senator - who is facing a corruption trial alongside former premier Silvio Berlusconi and claims he was part of a plot to subvert the Hong Kong legal system by blocking the transfer of key evidence against Berlusconi - has a history of shifting political allegiances in the murky world of Italian politics.

De Gregorio's allegations over the transfer of crucial evidence from Hong Kong to lawyers in Milan who are prosecuting a fraud and money-laundering case against Berlusconi's son Pier Silvio, two Hong Kong businesswomen Katherine Hsu May-chun and Paddy Chan Mei-yiu, and eight others, are being taken seriously in Italy. They have also been partially corroborated by official documents and statements given by those who met him.

Now, as De Gregorio and Hong Kong take a key role in Italy's biggest political crisis in years, his chameleon-like political instincts have kicked in again. Facing trial, stripped of parliamentary immunity from prosecution, he has cut a deal with prosecutors - to give them the dope on Berlusconi in return for no jail time.

Portraying himself as the repentant wrongdoer, he told an Italian television station: "When you are in politics, you have to soil your hands. I will not soil my hands again."

Married with three children, De Gregorio, 53, grew up in the Naples in the 1970s, when mafia boss Raffaele Cutolo was trying to unify the disparate criminal factions that make up the neapolitan Camorra, sparking violent clashes between rival gangs. His first job was as a journalist documenting organised crime in Italy's third-largest city.

Senator Paolo Guzzanti, a former political ally who met De Gregorio in the 1980s, recalls him as an outstanding journalist. "He found those kids who were committing robberies and interviewed the members of the mafia. He was a master of crime reporting," he said.

De Gregorio rose quickly through the ranks and, by the early 1990s, was appearing on national television.

After several unsuccessful attempts to enter politics, in 2005, he aligned himself with Italia dei Valori - Italy of Values - the party of former magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, Berlusconi's long-time foe.

A decade earlier, Di Pietro had gained national prominence as the magistrate who exposed widespread corruption in the Italian government. His investigation sent a former premier into self-imposed exile on corruption charges. He was also among the first to shed light on corruption allegations against Berlusconi, when he headed the Italian government between 1994 and 1995.

De Gregorio won a senate seat in the 2006 elections, but after six months, he abandoned Di Pietro and joined Berlusconi's centre-right opposition. It was a year later, in 2007, that he made two trips to Hong Kong, during which - he alleges - he became aware that substantial evidence in the Berlusconi case had been seized in the city that could be damaging to the ex-premier, his latest political patron.

In 2008, Romano Prodi's centre-left government fell to a no-confidence vote and Berlusconi returned to power. De Gregorio's vote in the senate was one of the seven that sealed Prodi's fate. With money-laundering and embezzlement charges - unconnected to the Berlusconi case - hanging over him, loyalty to Berlusconi kept De Gregorio in the senate and ensured him immunity from criminal prosecution.

That changed last year when he lost Berlusconi's support. "I understood that probably they have bought, used and thrown away a man who has done many services for them," De Gregorio said in an interview on Friday.

He caved to public pressure and resigned from the Senate in March to face bribery charges for his crucial no-confidence vote in 2008. He has since struck a deal with prosecutors to escape jail in return for admitting to taking €3 million (HK$31.4 million) in bribes from Berlusconi, an allegation the former premier denies.

During questioning on these charges, De Gregorio provided an unsolicited account of his allegations relating to Hong Kong, according to a transcript seen by the Sunday Morning Post. His claims also appeared in testimony he gave on September 10 to prosecutors in Milan investigating Berlusconi associates on charges of tax fraud. As you might expect, De Gregorio is writing a book and on Friday repeated his allegations on Italian national television.

"He is not a buffoon," said Senator Guzzanti. "This is a man who seeks revenge. He is a very cold man who has been able to build his political career in a very lucid way."