16 Charged in Parmalat Scandal

A Milan judge has formally charged Parmalat (search) founder Calisto Tanzi, 15 other executives and three financial institutions over their role in the scandal that plunged one of Italy's best-known brands into insolvency.

Judge Cesare Tacconi (search) sent the executives to trial on Saturday, after eight months of preliminary hearings, on charges including market-rigging, false auditing and of hindering the work of regulators.

The Italian offices of Bank of America (BAC), auditors Deloitte & Touche (search) and the former Italian affiliate of Grant Thornton were also charged with helping dairy group Parmalat mislead investors.

Under Italian law, companies can stand trial, facing possible fines or even enforced closure if found guilty. Two Deloitte partners and three Bank of America employees were also indicted as individuals.

Bank of America and Deloitte have denied wrongdoing. Grant Thornton severed ties with its Italian unit in the weeks after the 14-billion euro ($17 billion) accounting scandal broke.

The first hearing is set for Sept. 28.

Milan prosecutors have been investigated for suspected financial crimes since Parmalat filed for insolvency in December 2003. In May last year, they asked a judge to send 29 executives and three companies to stand trial over the scandal.

Since then, two auditors of the former Italian unit of Grant Thornton have been sent to trial, skipping preliminary hearings.

Eleven executives, including three former Parmalat chief financial officers, have asked the Milan judge to plea bargain, seeking reduced sentences of up to two and half years for their roles in the accounting scandal.

The judge is due to rule on the plea bargains on Tuesday.

In March, Milan prosecutors ended the investigative part of a probe into the role of banks in the Parmalat fraud scandal, naming banking giants Citigroup (C), Morgan Stanley (MWD), Deutsche Bank and UBS, along with Italian asset manager Nextra.

The banks have denied wrongdoing.

Prosecutors are expected to request a separate trial for them soon. Lawyers for Calisto Tanzi have argued the banks played a key role in the downfall of Parmalat.

One of Italy's best-known food companies, with diary products and juices lining the shelves of the country's supermarkets, Parmalat stunned investors in 2003 when it revealed a 4-billion-euro bank account did not exist.

Now under bankruptcy administration, it has slimmed down its operations ahead of a planned relisting and creditors will vote from Tuesday until the end of August on a plan to swap 12 billion euros of debt into shares.

Prosecutors in Parma, where Parmalat is based, are conducting a separate set of inquiries into fraud within the firm. They have formally concluded the main part of their probe, naming 71 people, but no one has yet been sent to trial.