An undercover investigation exposes a group of right-wing extremists influencing Italian politics from the shadows
In Milan, far from the political spotlight, a group of freemasons, former soldiers and businessmen feeling nostalgic for fascism has been influencing political appointments and policy making within Italy’s mainstream right-wing parties for years.
This "Black Lobby" mobilizes votes for the more mainstream Lega (League) and Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy), bestowing favors that they expect will be reciprocated. The two parties combined hold about one-third of the seats in the Italian Parliament.
The lobby meets politicians in institutional settings — including government buildings and election dinners, where they freely express their admiration for fascism — as well as nameless businesses owned by lawyers for the ‘Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful mafia group.
Since 2019, for almost three years, Fanpage.it’s undercover investigative unit "Backstair" has infiltrated this influential group thanks to an undercover reporter posing as a businessman. The journalist, wearing a concealed camera, approached Roberto Jonghi Lavarini, a representative for the Black Lobby who proved ready to go to great lengths to support his political sponsors. As the video investigation shows, Backstair found out that not only was Jonghi prepared to make and strengthen pacts with extremist movements, but also to raise illicit funds for political candidates.
Jonghi’s fascist sympathies have long been known. But the extent and nature of his dealings with mainstream political parties and elected officials have remained a secret — until now.
The rise of the Black Baron
Roberto Jonghi Lavarini, 49, is officially involved in real estate purchasing for the family company. His main passions, however, are history, religion, politics and fascism. He is also keen on esotericism and, not surprisingly, heraldry, since it boasts noble origins. "I am the son of Cesare Jonghi Lavarini of the barons of Ornavasso", he often points out. He is the leading figure of an association called Aristocrazia Europea (European Aristocracy) that purports to protect the hereditary rights of a group of "authentic" aristocrats in Italy.
These activities have earned Lavarini the nickname the "Black Baron", with "black" referring to his declared sympathy for fascist ideology.
Since the 1990s, he has been a militant of all the Italian right-wing parties: Alleanza nazionale (National Alliance), Movimento sociale italiano (Italian Social Movement), Fiamma tricolore (Tricoloured Flame), Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) and even Popolo delle Libertà (People of Freedom) of Silvio Berlusconi. In Milan, he has been well known since he helped found Cuore Nero (Black Heart), an association located near the cemetery of the fallen of Benito Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic — a place with which ultra-conservative nationalists from all over Europe identify.
Before being shut down in 2010, Cuore Nero brought together the various factions of the Milanese extreme right. In fact, it was founded by Jonghi together with Alessandro Todisco, the former hooligan leader of the Inter Curva Nord (Inter North Curve) and the Italian leader of the Hammerskin, a supremacist group committed to racial violence. It is here that the Baron met Lino Guaglianone, former treasurer of the neo-fascist terrorist organization Nar (Revolutionary Armed Nuclei), who sponsored Cuore Nero, and the former fascist terrorist Maurizio Murelli, sentenced to eighteen years of imprisonment for moral complicity in the murder of police officer Antonio Marino, during the Years of Lead.
Despite these associations, for many years Jonghi also held institutional positions. He was elected district councilor for the city of Milan for three terms before winning the presidency for Municipality 3. His district included the centrally located Porta Venezia neighborhood, which is now the heart of the city’s LGBTQ+ community. Already in 1997, a photograph of Benito Mussolini hanging in his presidential office caused a media sensation. "It is taken from a historical calendar," he claimed as a defense.
In 2014, Jonghi was once again in the spotlight for an interview with Le Iene (The Hyenas), the flagship broadcast program on the Mediaset TV networks, in which he claimed in front of millions of viewers that fascism "was a great period of civilization, well-being, modernization, social economic reforms and large infrastructures."
"Mussolini's only true mistake is that he was too good," he said.
A few years later, his Fare Fronte (Face and Resist) movement merged with Giorgia Meloni's Fratelli d’Italia party, which today holds 21 seats in the Italian Senate and 37 in the lower House of Deputies. In the March 2018 elections, Jonghi made an unsuccessful bid for the Chamber of Deputies as a candidate with the Fratelli d’Italia.
In 2020, he was convicted of fascist sympathizing, which Italy outlawed in 1952, as a result of the Le Iene interview, and was forced to keep a lower profile. After the conviction, the party leaders that had nominated him distanced themselves from him in public.
But some supporters refused to turn their backs on him, including members of the Regular Grand Lodge of Italy, former members of P2 masonic lodge, fallen nobles, long-time soldiers, personalities from the pro-Russian world and members of the Orthodox Christian church. The common ground uniting the groups in their support are the three cornerstones of God, Family and Country. The "Black Baron" represents a lowest common denominator as he inhabits the role of mediator between the political world and the seedy underworld of which he is the true protagonist.
In this underworld there is also "a group of Hitler's admirers," he told our undercover journalist in private.
"Plus we have our own informal information and security service," he added. "We have a network of former soldiers, secret services rather than armed forces, and then there are even foreign people." Among foreigners is Countess Mandilosani Lali Panchulidze Aznauri. "My family is formed by ancient Georgian warriors," she told us. "Then they were exiled to Paris after the fall of the Tsars."
Jonghi presented her as the one who "deals with the Caucasus area." The countess then introduced us to a person who – she says – works in the security office of the Russian embassy in Italy."Don't mess with her," she warned. "You have to be careful, or she will cut your head off."
Among the Russian contacts there is also a journalist from Sputnik, the Russian news agency, who claims to be in contact with Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin's government and to be a close friend of Gianluca Savoini, a key figure in the plan to use Russian oil money to fund Italy’s far right.
"He is a very dear person," the journalist said of Savoini. "Thanks to him I went with [Lega leader Matteo] Salvini to the Duma. Now, however, I only hear from him via email, because his phone is still seized." Before covering Italy for the Russian newspaper, he was a member of the armed forces.
"These are absolutely natural and spontaneous agreements that are now being organized to create 360-degree synergies," Jonghi said in reference to his broad universe of contacts.
In the shadow of politics
"We have political contacts within the center-right," he explained. "Not only in the Lega, but also in Fratelli d’Italia and even in Forza Italia", Italy's more moderate right party.
Despite Jonghi’s extremist positions, center-right politicians of various levels, from city council members to European Members of Parliament (MEPs), look to him for electoral help. He is the only one who can connect the institutional right with the radical right, which makes up a small but statistically significant number of voters in the territory. In fact, Jonghi can move up to 5% of voters on the right, he boasts.
When we entered the Black Baron’s world, in mid-2019, his lobby had played an active role in helping elect MEP Angelo Ciocca, who received a record 90,000 votes. Of these, Jonghi's group claims to be responsible for about 5,000, giving it leverage to push for something in return.
"In Matteo Salvini's new national-popular Lega, there must also be space for us," he said during a confidential meeting between the lobby and Ciocca that our undercover reporter attended wearing a concealed camera. "We want to work for the Lega; we want to help the ruling class grow."
Ciocca also acknowledged Jonghi’s efforts, saying,"Thanks also to your help, we were able to return to Europe stronger than before."
The meeting illustrates how the goal of Jonghi's lobby is to find a mainstream, institutional outlet that will provide cover for their extremist ideas, at a time when the Lega party is experiencing its greatest electoral growth.
"Ciocca must have a more moderate position," Jonghi acknowledged during the meeting filmed with a concealed camera. "We'll take care of the less balanced position; let's try to stay together."
Ciocca has always been close to the far right; his most trusted collaborator wears a neo-Nazi Celtic cross around his neck and Ciocca himself has been recommended to Jonghi by "old Pavia comrades."
During a private meeting in the offices of the Lombardy Region, Ciocca promised the Baron, "If you need anything, as much as we can, we will help you." The meeting, which we attended undercover, took place in the office of the vice president of the Lombardy regional council, Francesca Attilia Brianza, which has also become the de facto branch office of the Lega MEP's office, in defiance of any regulation.
In addition to Ciocca, another of Jonghi’s key Lega contacts is the regional councilor Massimiliano Bastoni.
"My teacher is my father, who on his deathbed with great pride defined himself a fascist," Bastoni declared during a meeting with the Black Lobby. "And then I have another great teacher, Mario Borghezio."
Mario Borghezio is a former Lega MEP from Turin who, in addition to sharing the lobby’s nostalgia for fascism, aspires to work mainly in the political shadow. "On the stage we are a bit bulky, but behind our parties let us work freely," explained Jonghi to us.
Mario Borghezio, has always been the strategist of the far-right current within the Lega. Convicted of private violence, damage followed by fire and defamation aggravated by racial discrimination, in the past, he was a sympathizer of the neofascist movement Ordine Nuovo (New Order) and collaborated with the Orion group coordinated by the former black terrorist Maurizio Murelli. As journalist Claudio Gatti recounted in the "Salvini’s Demons" investigation, it was Murelli who developed the idea of influencing Italy’s geographically autonomist political leagues — such as the Lega Nord (Northern League), which evolved into the Lega — with post-Nazi ideologies. Also part of Murelli's group was Gianluca Savoini, Matteo Salvini's contact person in the Kremlin, who was at the center of the Metropol affair and was brought into the Lega by Borghezio.
We are invited to a private meeting between Jonghi and Borghezio. Before the appointment, the Black Baron Jonghi was keen to point out that Borghezio is different from how the media portray him.
"He is a cultured person, he is a lawyer, he knows languages and stuff," he explained. "Then, of course, just like me, he's a crazy Nazi."
During the meeting, Borghezio's goals are clear; the Lega’s extremist faction must be strengthened.
"Matteo Salvini is weak. This situation pushes him into [Fratelli d’Italia leader] Giorgia Meloni's arms," he explained to our journalist. "This thing opens a highway to our area; it is the highway for the third Lega, a situation that I had been waiting for decades. We must begin to train the cadres to be included in this Third Lega."
A few hours later, during a political meeting with Massimiliano Bastoni, his pupil and former assistant in the European Parliament, Borghezio explains who the future cadres of this new Lega are. Their specific nature is "the Third Position, which is militancy," he says.
Borghezio’s words and tone leave no room for doubt; he is talking about the Terza Posizione (Third Position), a subversive neo-fascist movement that gave rise to most of Italy’s contemporary far-right movements. The meeting with Bastoni takes place in front of the members of Lealtà Azione (Loyalty Action), a right-wing extremist movement inspired by the SS Colonel Léon Degrelle. It is rooted among football hooligans and was born as an Italian faction of the Hammerskin Nation. When Borghezio describes the future leaders of the new current, he is speaking directly to the Lealtà Azione members.
A solid alliance has existed between the Lega and the Lealtà Azione movement for over five years, first in Milan and then throughout Italy. Lealtà Azione supported Lega candidates at all levels: Massimiliano Bastoni at the Lombardy regional council, Silvia Sardone at the Milan city council and in the European Parliament, and Igor Iezzi, Paolo Grimoldi, William De Vecchis and Jari Colla in the Italian Parliament.
Their main contact in Matteo Salvini's Lega party, however, always remains the regional councilor Max Bastoni.
"[Milan] Mayor [Beppe] Sala does not care about the Milanese citizens; he is concerned about those bad fascists of Lealtà Azione," Bastoni raged during a public election event with the far-right militants. "But I am proud to collaborate with them and to be part of this Association. If these are fascists, I repeat that being a fascist is absolutely not an offense."
The Third League
During Bastoni's electoral campaign for this year’s municipal elections, events organized by the Lega and Lealtà Azione ended up overlapping and almost mixing themselves — starting with the operational base chosen by Bastoni and Lega MEP Silvia Sardone, at 16 Pareto Street in Milan. In the past, this was the Cuore Nero community center where Jonghi took his first steps. Today it’s the Lealtà Azione headquarters, decorated with the extremist movement symbols and with Benito Mussolini’s phrases and portraits. The two important Lega members chose this place for their electoral campaign precisely because of its connection to Lealtà Azione, whose initiatives they promote.
The connection between "the institutional party" and the "militancy," explains Jonghi, is Stefano Pavesi, a local Lega politician who was recently elected for the second time to the Milan District 8 neighborhood council. Pavesi is a historical militant of the ultra-right group and president of one of its sections, the radical Catholic cultural association "Una voce nel silenzio" (A voice in the silence).
"The Lega has taken Pavesi as a reference. It is solely through him that Sardone and Bastoni’s group was created," Jonghi said. But Pavesi was only nominated for a neighborhood council, not the city council, because "If they had nominated him for the city council, they would have found the Lealtà Azione Nazi – he is – elected as the top Lega candidate in Milan."
"Lega is the institutional party, the brand, while the extremist movements have a militancy that no party in Milan has," Jonghi explained under his breath during a joint demonstration by Lealtà Azione and Lega together. "And in exchange, since they cannot give them institutional positions, they offer jobs. Which is why they are all Nazis in the Regional secretariats. Did you understand the trick?"
The trick works to the point that Pavesi’s invaluable contribution to MEP Silvia Sardone’s election campaign earns him a job in Strasbourg in exchange, we discover through our undercover reporter.
"I work for Sardone in the European Parliament; she herself hired me," he confides to us.
However, Lealtà Azione is too controversial to fully operate in the open. Its influence therefore manifests in different forms: voluntary associations that distribute food to the needy, organizations that organize soccer tournaments against pedophilia, and groups that help stray animals, protect the environment and promote combat sports.
"We are already fascists," Pavesi told our undercover reporter. "Plus there is the fact that in Milan, the center-left is very strong. We always have to ‘play’ a little", he said in reference to the group’s need to diversify its propaganda activities.
The main and best known of these organizations is the non-profit organization Bran.co which, together with the CooXazione association, delivers food parcels to needy families. During electoral campaigns, Lega candidates take part in the distribution. Some of the food distributed by Lealtà Azione comes from the Banco Alimentare, Italy’s national Food Bank financed by public donations and by the Ministry of Labor, Stefano Pavesi and Massimiliano Bastoni reveal to us.
The organization’s ethics code states: "Collaborations of any kind with subjects who carry out political propaganda are excluded […] as well as the support of organizations that aim to limit the freedom and dignity of citizens or to promote forms of discrimination."
That didn’t stop regional councilor Max Bastoni, MEP Silvia Sardone or municipal councilor Stefano Pavesi — all Lega members — from not only distributing food to the needy during the Milan municipal elections, but doing so on behalf of the far-right association Lealtà Azione — all while they handed out election leaflets for their own party.
A moderate extremism
But Lealtà Azione can also count on support beyond the Lega. Another connection to the extremist movement in the European Parliament is MEP Carlo Fidanza, who was head of the Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) delegation in Brussels. While the Lega grabbed international headlines in 2018 thanks to leader Matteo Salvini’s increasingly incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric, the FdI is even more extreme. Fidanza is one of the FdI leaders closest to party head Giorgia Meloni — and a point of reference for the party in Milan.
"In Milan we are with Lega; down in Lodi we are with Fratelli d’Italia. One of our contact persons is Carlo Fidanza, who is a MEP," a leader of the far-right movement told our undercover reporter.
Proof for these statements can be found in the MEP’s participation in several editions of the Celebration Of The Sun, the annual gathering of the extremist movement. Other members of the local right also attend, including the former regional councilor for welfare of the center-right Forza Italia, Giulio Gallera, and the Lega parliamentarians Igor Iezzi and Simone Pillon.
Fidanza’s involvement with far-right extremists is not new. In fact, he was first a member of the Fronte della Gioventù (Youth Front), then the Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement). These political groups were founded by Giorgio Almirante, a forefather of the Italian right who held prominent institutional positions during the Fascist regime. Fidanza immediately made politics his job. He became one of the founders of Fratelli d’Italia in 2012. Closely associated with the Inter Curva Nord, in 2007, he participated in a parade organized by the ultras after the death of Lazio supporter Gabriele Sandri. He is also linked to hooligans of the Hockey Milano team, whose games are a popular meeting place for Lealtà Azione militants.
In a video from 2019, he can be seen in the front row of an unauthorized demonstration with Max Bastoni in which vigorously petitions the police to let the group pass. The marchers are using fascist Roman salutes and the "Present!" ritual to honor the memory of Sergio Ramelli, a young activist of the Fronte della Gioventù who was killed in the 1970s. Every April 29, he is remembered by a large group of comrades.
After cutting ties with the Lega MEP Angelo Ciocca, Jonghi’s lobby decided to focus on Carlo Fidanza. The FdI’s growth in the polls and the Lega’s shift to more moderate positions pushed the Black Baron's group to re-cultivate relations with the Fratelli d’Italia MEP. Fidanza was also a longtime militant friend of Jonghi and even claimed to be the creator of his political career, after having led him to join Azione Giovani. Fidanza, whose image now is that of the moderate conservative, returned to Milan during the 2021 municipal elections to spend time with Jonghi's "black brigade" and sponsor his candidate for the Milan city council, the lawyer Chiara Valcepina.
Comrades of Italy
Through Fidanza, the "Baron" begins to collaborate in the electoral campaign of Fratelli d’Italia and, together with the MEP, Valcepina’s candidacy. He describes her as a "patriot among patriots, then also a candidate," adding that he could "use another term in place of patriot." Being "patriots," in the world of the Italian right, is a euphemism for like-minded individuals who share the groups’ radical beliefs. Valcepina and Jonghi, in fact, greet each other several times with the gladiator handshake, in addition to making the Roman salute, two symbolic gestures of the radical right.
Jonghi introduced our undercover journalist to Valcepina during an aperitif with her supporters on 22 July 2021. He explained that we worked for an important international financial company, and that we were interested in financially supporting right-wing parties in exchange for corporate assistance. This fact is of such great interest that a few weeks later, on September 3, it is Valcepina herself who introduces us to Fidanza as businessmen.
The MEP is immediately available and says he is ready to help us "at an international level." We are at an electoral aperitif for the Milan elections, and the Fratelli d’Italia candidate is holding an event with the deputy of Fratelli d’Italia, Paola Frassinetti, and with other candidates for the various municipal councils. Despite the presence of a large audience, Fidanza, who had met us only for a few minutes, calls us aside to propose financing one of their events using "black money."
"The methods are: you can deposit the money into the dedicated current account that she opened for the elections. Or, if it is more convenient for you to use black money, she uses the clean money for the bar, and with the black money she covers the other expenses”, Fidanza says under his breath. "At that point, you directly arrange things with her, without using the black money at the bar, because it is never pleasant, then people talk about it".
"We have washing machines"
To understand how they can receive and justify the use of illicit funds, we decided to comply with Fidanza’s request. We discovered that the man who would take care of this operation was, once again, Jonghi, a trusted friend of Fidanza. We asked him to explain in detail how the system works.
"I give some cash to area councilors and say, ‘Organize the event, but you have to invite Valcepina, Fidanza and Rocca,’" Jonghi explained. "Then two entrepreneurs take some other black money privately because they know how to deal with it, and they make payments to the Valcepina account."
Three weeks after the first meeting, on 22 September 2021, we received a phone call; it was Jonghi telling us the MEP wanted to meet us. This time the event was a public electoral dinner, a "patriotic evening" organized by the Fratelli d’Italia in anticipation of an administrative vote to be held in about 10 days. There, Fidanza and Jonghi explained how they are able to report the black money financing.
Jonghi asked us to put our phones on the table and then explained, "Through the president of our clubhouse, who is an accountant, we found a series of ‘washing machines.’ Then we have our circle. We sort things out with him," he concluded, pointing to Fidanza, who was by his side. "Roberto finds four or five professionals; these people deposit the tracked payment to the electoral account," the MEP confirmed.
At the patriotic evening, they don’t just talk about undeclared funds. In addition to the usual pre-election political meetings, the representatives of Fratelli d’Italia, who defined themselves as "a happy black brigade," indulged in countless gladiator handshakes and greetings between "comrade!" Also present was somebody who claimed to be a "true fascist," the president of Milan’s Municipality 7 district, Norma Iannacone. Later, Zone 3 candidate Mattia Ferrarese, while telling an anecdote about a Jewish person, made the Roman salute, and Carlo Fidanza, standing next to him, began to laugh and mimic the gesture, shouting in falsetto; "Comrade, comrade!".
When it is time to take the usual photo for social media, the MEP, instead of "cheese" urges everyone to say the name of Paolo Berizzi, the only journalist in Europe to be under guard for the threats from neo-Nazis. The candidates laugh and answer in chorus, "Berizzi." As we were about to leave, Fidanza took us to the side again and reiterated "I have this thing; in a year and a half I’ll see where my career will go. I have to be crystal clear."
The 100 hours
On 30 September 2021, the first video episode of "Black Lobby," featuring hidden recordings made by our journalist, was published online on Fanpage.it and simultaneously broadcasted live on television by the "Piazzapulita" La7 TV program. The video investigation, seen by over 3 million viewers, marked a point of no return for all people involved. The reactions were immediate, with the entire political establishment indignant at MEP Fidanza’s behavior. The next day, he announced he would be stepping down as head of the Fratelli d’Italia delegation to the European Parliament. He also tried to defend himself, saying, "I have never taken irregular funding." But the mockery against the journalist Paolo Berizzi, the Roman salutes and the sharing of fascist jokes and speeches were enough to devastate his public image.
The leader of his party, Giorgia Meloni, besieged by journalists asking for an official statement, defended the trusted lieutenant.
"Fanpage.it says they filmed 100 hours, but just a few minutes were broadcasted," she said. "There is something weird. I want to see all the footage before making a decision about Fidanza. I have to be sure that their video is not an artfully made edit to strike us a few days before the elections."
The answer to her doubts came on October 11, when the Milan prosecutor's office, after having viewed the uncut full video footage, officially announced that "the edited videos are fitting to the 100 hours of raw footage".
The day after the report, the Milan prosecutor's office also opened an investigation into potential illegal party financing and money laundering, together with the Guardia di Finanza (Finance Police). Starting from October 2, the investigation set the political agenda and monopolized the Italian media for weeks. Fratelli d’Italia tried to divert attention by accusing Backstair of having orchestrated a hit piece, while newspapers close to the political right denigrated the work of the journalists, even resorting to personal attacks.
Jonghi, meanwhile, was forced to defend himself on two fronts. At the political level, he published a photo of himself with Meloni and Salvini to prove that he hadn’t over-stated his influence, as some right-wing supporters claimed.
"No one must pretend not to know me," he warned.
Then, in a press release, he attacked Backstair, the unit that produced the investigation. "We never thought he was an agent provocateur of a long and studied diabolical operation, just like a deviant and/or foreign secret services operation, paid by the ‘strong powers’ of the globalist plutocracy," Jonghi stated.
From the polls to the prosecutor's office
On October 5, the final results of the municipal elections offered a decisive victory for the center-left mayor Giuseppe Sala, but confirmed an increase in support for Fratelli d’Italia, which went from receiving 2.4% of the vote in 2016 to 9.9% in 2021. Silvia Sardone and Chiara Valcepina were elected to the City Council, while Stefano Pavesi was the most voted in Municipality 8. The results were disappointing, however, for Massimiliano Bastoni, who failed to achieve the desired result.
On the same day of the electoral results, the Milan prosecutor investigated Jonghi and Fidanza for illegal party financing and money laundering. The Financial Police searched Jonghi's apartment and seized documents and computers, looking for evidence of any illegal financial transactions.
On October 7, the second episode of the video investigation by the Fanpage.it was published — and this time, the Lega politicians were in the eye of the storm. Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, rivals in the quest to lead the center-right, joined forces against the investigation. With the infiltration of the far right into the Lega shown in the second episode, the public debate expanded, forcing Italy to reckon again with fascists and violent nostalgics.
A week later, Milan Prosecutors Giovanni Polizzi and Piero Basilone ordered a search of the "Ala destra" (Right Wing) association. The next day, it investigated the clubhouse’s president, Mauro Rotunno, the accountant who Jonghi had said would be tasked with "laundering" the black money to transform it into legitimate funds for the party. The Georgian Countess Lali Panchulidze, a collaborator of Jonghi and president of the International Christian Ecumenical Cultural Association Italy Georgia Eurasia (Acigea) was also investigated. Her website states, "We are partners and friends of the cultural association Lombardia Russia of Gianluca Savoini".
Being compromised in the world of politics, Jonghi attacked the category of journalists. On November 20th he announced "a major journalistic investigation on the story, supporters and financiers" of Fanpage.it. The European editorial team of Breitbart News will conduct the investigation, Jonghi revealed. It’s the same newspaper that is leading the American alternative right. In the past, it was directed by former U.S. Pres. Donald Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon, and is well-known as a fake news factory.
by Sacha Biazzo, Salvatore Garzillo and Luigi Scarano
drawings by Salvatore Garzillo