The rise and fall of Northern League founder Umberto Bossi

Umberto Bossi

In Italy the truculent founder of the Northern League Party, Umberto Bossi, and his family are at the centre of a political corruption scandal involving the alleged funnelling of millions of euros of public money into private accounts. Mr Bossi has been forced to resign as party leader and his party is in disarray.

I first met Umberto Bossi in the autumn of 1996 when I followed him for the best part of a week on an extraordinary political odyssey along the meandering course of the River Po, Italy's longest river.

My journey began high up in the Italian Alps near a waterfall, the river's source.

Here Mr Bossi and his supporters solemnly filled small glass containers symbolising the force of this mighty river which eventually broadens out into a massive stream flowing through flat plains of Lombardy, down to the Adriatic sea.

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He frequently uses swear words in public to smear anyone he does not like and often gives the finger in front of TV cameras”

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My journey continued through Turin, crossing the entire width of Italy to end in Venice, near the mouth of the Po.

There Mr Bossi made one of his charismatic, raucous and fiery speeches, declaring in essence that northern Italians were no longer going to kow-tow to Rome's greedy politicians and to pay their taxes to enable lazy southern Italians to live on public welfare.

One of his famous phrases was "Roma ladrona" meaning "Thieving Romans!"

It was all pretty provocative stuff, and had strongly racist undertones.

The League mocks the accents and the origins of Southerners whom they derisively call "terroni". I suppose "ignorant peasant" would be the nearest English translation.

The Northern League has also openly opposed the arrival of millions of new migrants from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe to Italy, during recent decades.

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And this, notwithstanding the fact that the Italian economy would have ground to a halt long ago were it not for these lower-paid workers, who now fill the northern factories.

The new arrivals have also been doing the agricultural labour, and the menial and repetitive jobs that Italians of the 21st Century, accustomed to a prosperity that their forefathers never knew, often seem unwilling to take on.

Sixteen years later it turns out that Umberto Bossi has apparently been dipping into the public trough, even more deeply than the Roman politicians he was so critical of when he founded his separatist party, and set up the phantom north Italian state he dubbed "Padania" - meaning the country of the river Po.

In 2004 Mr Bossi suffered a stroke which left him with impaired speech, but failed to quench his political ambitions or his vulgar public manners.

He frequently uses swear words in public to smear anyone he does not like and often gives the finger in front of TV cameras to make his message even more clear.

Umberto Bossi and his son Renzo Umberto Bossi's son Renzo has been forced to resign as a regional government official

The first whiff of serious scandal came out when Mr Bossi's party treasurer came under police scrutiny in connection with an ongoing judicial inquiry, in various parts of Italy, into money laundering on behalf of organised crime.

The treasurer, Francesco Belsito, had in his Rome office safe a folder marked, in English, The Family. In it police found details of alleged financial transactions which have left Italians gasping.

According to court documents, Mr Bossi's wife bought no fewer than 11 houses and apartments with Northern League party funds.

Mr Bossi himself had his own house done up with public money and his son Renzo - nicknamed by his father the Trout, who in fact does have a somewhat fish-like expression - also had access to apparently unlimited cash to indulge in his taste for fast cars.

The party even paid for the Trout's speeding tickets, not to mention medical expenses. The 23-year-old has now been forced to resign from his sinecure as a regional government official, which brought him 12,000 euros (£10,000, $16,000) a month.

The public outcry has been deafening. At a time when ordinary Italians are being told to tighten their belts and suffer pension losses and endure draconian welfare cuts, the Bossi family is revealed as being every bit as corrupt as the thieving Rome politicians it boasted that it wanted to unseat.

Silvio Berlusconi and Umberto Bossi Umberto Bossi's party gave crucial support to ex PM Silvio Berlusconi

Even worse, Mr Bossi's disgraced treasurer is now alleged to have diverted millions of euros of Northern League party funds into offshore bank accounts and even invested in diamonds as Mr Bossi and his advisers feared earlier this year that the euro was about to collapse and he wanted to protect his future financial security.

The sly way in which all Italian political parties - not just the Northern League - have been freely helping themselves to public funds under a reimbursement of electoral expenses law passed by Silvio Berlusconi, has led to some rapid stable-door-bolting in Rome's parliament this week.

But the real significance of the fall of the House of Bossi - coming only months after the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi, also wounded by personal scandal - is that the politicians who have been governing Italy for the past two decades have been given an ultimatum.

Time is running out for them unless they present themselves for office again with clean hands in the local elections, due next month, and the general election scheduled in a year's time.

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