MILAN – The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement on Tuesday defended Giuseppe Conte, tapped to be Italy's next premier, against speculation that he overstated affiliations with an elite international university, saying the insinuations indicated fears of the changes coming under a 5-Star government with the right-wing League.
The movement said in a statement that the 53-year-old law professor "had never boasted" of overseas degrees, but had "stayed abroad to study, enrich his knowledge and perfect his juridical English. For a professor of his level, the opposite would have been strange."
Conte is currently a professor at the University of Florence, where colleagues and students alike praised Conte as a capable choice, even if he lacks political experience. Conte also has solid institutional Catholic credentials, teaching at the Vatican-affiliated LUMSA university in the mid-1990s and having close ties with Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, one of the behind-the-scenes power brokers in the Italian church and at the Vatican.
A 12-page resume covering the years since his 1988 law degree at Rome's Sapienza University includes references to stays at an array of top universities in the United States, Britain and France, without specifying what studies exactly he had undertaken. The lack of specificity created a sensation in the Italian media.
The resume says Conte "stayed" at Paris Sorbonne University in 2000 and Cambridge University's Girton College in 2001 for scientific research. The resume also said he "perfected and updated his studies" during stays at New York University of at least a month during the summers of 2008-2012.
Cambridge declined to confirm any affiliation, citing privacy, and the Sorbonne and New York University didn't immediately respond to queries.
Conte's resume also says he taught a course in European contract and banking law at the University of Malta in the summer of 1997.
However, the University of Malta said it has no record of Conte "ever forming part of the resident academic staff," adding that that didn't exclude that "he may have been involved in lecturing duties during short courses organized in the summer of 1997" by a now-defunct foundation that worked with the university.
While Italian media reports were full of speculation about what appeared to be resume padding with overstated affiliations, analyst Wolfango Piccoli, co-founder of Teneo Intelligence, said he didn't expect it to have any impact on Italian President Sergio Mattarella's deliberations over whether to formally tap Conte to form a government. The timing for that step remained unclear.
"Embellishing resumes is sport in Italy," Piccoli said, adding that "only an academic would have a 12-page CV."
More significant would be for Conte to establish that he would have the independence to authoritatively lead a 5-Star-League government after both 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini agreed to step aside, and not just be an executor of the populists' wishes. The 5-Stars began circulating Conte's name as a possible Cabinet minister several months ago, but he never participated in the elections or in the drafting of the program.
Paola Lucarelli, a professor of business law at the University of Florence who wrote a book with Conte, said he would bring to new government "his ability to mediate, a gift that maybe is not very common in politics."
During his university years in Rome, Conte had lived at the Holy See-affiliated Villa Nazareth, a residential college that provides low-income students with a place to live in the Italian capital while doing their studies.
Conte was precisely the type of motivated but economically disadvantaged Italians that Villa Nazareth sought out, said Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer at Duquesne University which has an exchange program with Villa Nazareth.
"He's a 'pull-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps' type," Cafardi said. "He's gotten where he is today because of very, very hard work."
While at Villa Nazareth, Conte became friends with Silvestrini, the cardinal who runs the residence, and then went on to become one of his lawyers. Cafardi said he met Conte in 1992 when Silvestrini and Conte came to the U.S. to set up a fundraising foundation, since disbanded, for Villa Nazareth.
"He's a great guy," Cafardi said. "I feel like he's walking in the lion's den with Salvini and Di Maio, but we'll see."
Nicole Winfield in Rome, Francesco Fedelli in Florence, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, and Stephen Calleja in Valletta, Malta, contributed to this report.