All truth about Italian political class in new best-seller

Lawmakers pocketing wads of state money intended for their staff. A bloated presidential palace whose upkeep is a stunning four times that of Buckingham Palace. Communities just above the sea level getting state subsidies destined for mountain villages.

In Italy - a country never reputed for the probity of its political class - abuse of office is rampant, according to what has become a best-seller portraying an overpaid, power-hungry elite swilling taxpayers' money like so many glasses of Chianti.

"The Caste," with a remarkable 465,000 copies sold since it came out in May, puts Italian politicians under intense scrutiny and is fueling a backlash against the pay and extraordinary perks of politicians.

Some even compare the political atmosphere to that preceding the "Clean Hands" scandal of the 1990s, which wiped out much of the ruling class.

"You know what really, really makes me mad? Having to work to support these parasites," said Beppe Grillo, a comedian known for his sharp anti-establishment criticism.

"Calling them 'the caste' is a compliment," he said. "Their name is scum."

Worse still for politicians, the book arrived just as the government was asking Italians to tighten their belts for the good of the country. Already, many citizens were deeply disillusioned by scandals and acrimony between the center-left bloc of Premier Romano Prodi and the opposition of conservative Silvio Berlusconi.

"I already had a less than flattering idea of politicians. After reading this book and watching TV shows on it there can be no more doubts," said Lucia Cottura, a 51-year-old Rome resident. "This is not a serious country and politicians are over-protected."

The 285-page book contains dozens of scathing examples, involving all levels of government, from members of the national parliament to small-town officials.

"They are a caste that feels above the society they claim to serve," write the authors, Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo, longtime political reporters for Italy's top daily, Corriere della Sera.

"Brahmins: That's what Italian politicians have become," they write. "The Brahmins know that once they have walked through the entrance of the Palace of the Caste, they're settled - forever."

The book claims government ministers regularly award lucrative consultant jobs to cronies regardless of their expertise (in one case, a fish salesman got a prison-building contract worth EUR200,000, or US$267,000).

At the local level, the flattest of Italy's regions, Puglia, gets 14 times more subsidies per hectare (acre) of mountain thanthe AlpinePiedmont region, according to the book.

Unusual in this highly politicized country, the book has no evident preference for left or right, suggesting that the two blocs, enemies on virtually everything else, are equal when it comes to clinging to their privileges.

"Impunity, that's what's striking. The idea that anything can go unpunished," the authors write.

Since the publication of the book, other instances of alleged misbehavior have added to the outrage. Earlier this month, a senator used an ambulance as a taxi to overcome traffic inconveniences caused by the visit to Rome of U.S. President George W. Bush. (He was widely criticized and offered to resign).

Giovanni Sartori, a leading political scientist, argued that such unfair privileges undermine the country.

"A democracy that becomes a 'Republic of the Unpunished' is most certainly a very bad democracy," he said. "And Italy outpaces all Western democracies in rewarding those who don't deserve it."

Punishments aside, politicians who face harsh accusations in Italy rarely resign because of public disapproval - a fact of political life in other democracies.

Paul Wolfowitz stepped down as World Bank chief over a scandal regarding a pay raise for his girlfriend, also a bank employee. Former British Home Secretary David Blunkett resigned after he was accused of fast-tracking the visa application for the nanny of the woman he was dating.

Here, Silvio Berlusconi has been elected to the premiership twice and became the longest-serving postwar prime minister despite being dogged by legal problems, corruption allegations and conflict-of-interest accusations.

Italy ranked a lowly 45th in the 2006 list by global watchdog Transparency International that gauges perceptions of the degree of corruption as seen by business people and country analysts.

"The Caste" has provoked countless debates, and Prodi's government is moving to take action.

It has mandated a group of Cabinet ministers and other national and regional officials to come up with a bill that takes aim at abuse of power. The legislation would eliminate unnecessary state bodies, cut salaries, curb the number of consultants, and be more transparent about public salaries. Separately, a parliamentary commission is making its own inquiry.

But there's skepticism that change is possible. After all, promises of public morality that followed "Clean Hands" have largely gone unheeded, according to the book's findings.

Says Stella, one of the authors: "People started forgiving themselves on small things, on their own sins. And now they tolerate everything."