ROME - A restructuring team looking to save embattled food giant Parmalat will likely try to sell the company's international units but hopes to keep the core domestic dairy business in Italian hands, a government minister said Monday.
Parmalat, Italy's eighth-largest company, entered bankruptcy protection last month after the company acknowledged massive and long-concealed holes in its accounts. Investigators have arrested nine people alleged to have fraudulently concealed the company's true finances, including Parmalat founder Calisto Tanzi.
Amid the growing investigation, newspaper reports said Monday that a former Parmalat chief financial officer has accused Tanzi of taking kickbacks from a Swedish food packager. In Sweden, the food packager said it was looking into the claims.
Also Monday, the ANSA news agency, citing leaked depositions, said former Parmalat financial official Alberto Ferraris told prosecutors last month that Parmalat's debts were at least 13.5-billion euros ($17.3-billion) as of October - far higher than the company then acknowledged. ANSA also said Tanzi told investigators he had been unaware of the company's true finances until recent months.
The Italian investigation was expected to focus this week on what role if any Italian and foreign banks played in the scandal. Prosecutors have been trying to ascertain whether the banks knew Parmalat's true state of affairs when they sold bonds for the company.
Milan judicial officials, who said last week that a former Bank of America employee who went on to consult for Parmalat was a suspect in the case, questioned the man's former assistant Monday. They also spoke with two of Tanzi's airplane pilots, apparently for information about an overseas trip after the scandal broke that he has described as a vacation.
Meanwhile, the chief of the restructuring effort, Enrico Bondi, was working to save the company from collapse.
Agriculture minister Giovanni Alemanno met with Bondi on Monday, and described the business turnaround expert's hopes for saving Parmalat. "Optimistic is a strong word, but he seems to have confidence," the minister said.
Alemanno said Parmalat's Italian fresh milk producer Eurolat could either remain within Parmalat or be sold to local investors. "What must be avoided is a breakup that becomes the target of foreign acquisition," he said.
"The Parmalat group will probably aim to sell its foreign companies and not its Italian ones," he said.
Bondi is still working on the restructuring plan, but he appeared to be looking to divest the company of noncore assets that had dragged down the profitable parts of the company.
Parmalat employs 36,000 people and has operations in 30 countries.
Italian newspapers reported Monday that ex-CFO Fausto Tonna told prosecutors that Swedish firm AB Tetra Pak paid millions of dollars to Tanzi in exchange for packaging contracts.
Tonna's lawyer was not available for comment Monday.
The papers said Tonna told investigators that Tetra Pak, a supplier of packaging systems for milk, fruit juices, ice cream and other products, discounted its merchandise and agreed to pay a percentage to Tanzi's account.
The payments by Tetra Pak started in 1996 and were made in exchange for packaging contracts with Parmalat, the Swedish company's largest client, Tonna reportedly told prosecutors.
According to a report in La Repubblica newspaper Monday, Tetra Pak paid Tanzi between $6.4-million and $7.7-million each year from 1996 to 1999, $19-million in 2000 and $38.5-million in 2001.
The money allegedly went into an account for personal use by Tanzi or for use in other family companies outside Parmalat, the reports said.
In Sweden, Tetra Pak spokesman Joergen Haglind said Monday the company was surprised and concerned about the reports and has launched an internal investigation into the allegations.
Haglind also said the company hasn't been contacted by Italian officials investigating Parmalat.