09 December 2015-Author: Lewis Crofts*
Romano Pisciotti spent 669 days in custody.
This included two hours in a police station in Lugano, Switzerland; 10 months in a jail in Frankfurt, Germany, fighting extradition; and eight months in a US federal prison in Folkston, Georgia, in a room with around 40 mainly Mexican inmates and a single corner toilet.
His crime: rigging bids for hoses used in the oil industry. His bad luck: being an Italian citizen passing through a German airport.
“I am totally ruined,” Pisciotti says wearily during an interview in his home north of Milan. “They destroyed me, my bank account, my family, my career. Everything.”
In April 2014, a German judge made Pisciotti the first European ever extradited to the US on cartel charges. That judge “destroyed a life,” the Italian says.
Pisciotti is bitter at the US officers who strip-searched him and then put his ankles and wrists in cuffs for hours as they transported him from prison to prison. And he is furious at the German judge who, in his eyes, aided the American authorities in his extradition. But he is also grateful for the generosity of fellow inmates who lent him soap and a toothbrush when he turned up in the middle of the night with only the prison-issued shirt on his back.
A former tanker captain, Pisciotti stands six feet tall and has a seafarer’s heavy frame. He’s a big man with an easy, avuncular smile. But underneath, the 62-year-old Italian is seething at the extraordinary turn of events that saw him pursued across continents to become the unwilling posterchild for international cartel enforcement.
Touring the legal conference circuit, US Department of Justice officials say Pisciotti’s case serves as a warning to others considering price fixing. And it does. From a hotel room raid in Switzerland in 2012 to just months ago, when he was holed up in a grim cell with just a bucket and another man for company, the twists and turns of his story will deter others.
Pisciotti’s extradition shows there are “fewer and fewer safe havens” for cartel violators to avoid US prosecution, Brent Snyder, the Department of Justice division’s deputy assistant attorney general for criminal enforcement said in June last year. He said there was a “higher risk” of extradition and this should encourage executives to co-operate with investigators.
But the case has taken its toll on Pisciotti, on his finances and on his family. He has struggled to find work and has shelled out over half a million dollars in a legal battle that, so far, failed on every front.
For its part, the US Department of Justice declaimed any responsibility for Pisciotti’s trouble.
“Romano Pisciotti’s decision to engage in a crime was the cause of any hardship and his decision to be a fugitive compounded it,” Snyder said in an interview. “He should not blame the US for enforcing its laws or seeking his lawful extradition. Our actions were the result of his choices.”
His story busts the myth that white-collar criminals get special treatment. There was no open prison for Pisciotti. No token sentence curtailed for good behavior. Businessmen may presume their crimes of market manipulation aren’t on a par with murderers and drug-dealers. But the criminal justice system in America made no exception for Pisciotti. He cooperated with investigators and pleaded guilty, but still ended up chained and cuffed, detained weeks beyond his official release date in a grotty immigration center. And all for a cartel he says investigators overcooked.
*Additional reporting by Leah Nylen
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