ROME — Luigi Di Maio used to believe that the sins of the father should be visited upon the son.
Then he became the son.
For years, Mr. Di Maio, a 32-year-old leader of Italy’s populist coalition government, attacked his political enemies by seeking to stain them with the alleged misconduct of their fathers. Now he has found himself in the midst of his own family drama. Recent news reports have charged that his father paid employees off the books and illegally built on his land outside Naples.
The violations, some of which the Di Maios have conceded, have hit close to home given that Mr. Di Maio, Italy’s squeaky clean deputy prime minister with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, also wears the hats of minister of labor and of economic development.
The scandal has prompted a feeding frenzy among Mr. Di Maio’s critics, who charge that his party’s mantras of “honesty” and “transparency” are rank with hypocrisy. After years of vicious, personal and dubious attacks spread through vast social media networks, the guilt-by-association and guilty-until-proven-innocent ethos of Italy’s populists now seems to endanger one of its most prominent leaders.
Late last month, the Italian news program “Le Iene,” or “Reservoir Dogs,” began a series of reports that featured former employees of Mr. Di Maio’s father, Antonio, recounting how they were paid partly off the books or were pressured not to report work injuries. The latest program, which aired Sunday, showed how Antonio Di Maio also appeared to have illegally built on his property outside Pomigliano D’Arco, the small town where Mr. Di Maio lived with his parents until leaving for Rome to join parliament.
When confronted with before-and-after aerial pictures of his father’s property, the populist leader suggested the buildings were always there, just previously camouflaged. He dismissed another apparently illegal structure as a simple stable. But the reporter, who subsequently received death threats from Five Star supporters on social media, produced photos showing Mr. Di Maio and his friends at a 2013 party relaxing in a pool on the property and hanging out in the supposed stall’s kitchen.
As local authorities have investigated the buildings, which they want to demolish, Mr. Di Maio has acknowledged that “my father made mistakes in his life.” He also added that “for years I didn’t even speak with him” and said that “I distance myself from this behavior, but he is still my father.”
But Mr. Di Maio has come under pressure.
On Monday, the elder Di Maio, who dabbled in post-fascist politics, posted a painful video on his Facebook page that was subsequently spread across Five Star social media.
In the video, the elder Mr. Di Maio, sitting at a desk with a fax machine, calculator and yellow Post-it Notes, woodenly reads a statement in which he begs forgiveness and describes himself as a small-business man who, “like every father,” did what he could to provide for his family.
“I’m sorry for my son Luigi, who they are trying to attack,” he says, insisting his son knew nothing of his misdeeds and praising his “honesty, transparency and courage.” He demands that critics “leave my family alone” but argues that he had no choice but to hire workers off the books.
He signs off by apologizing, again, to his son and saying, “As a father, I can only encourage him to go ahead, not because he is my son, but because I believe he is doing good for this country, against everyone and everything.”
For years, “everyone” included relatives of the younger Di Maio’s political enemies.
Before Five Star came to power, its main target was Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party, a former prime minister. Mr. Di Maio and the party’s army of online supporters seized on investigations into his father’s alleged influence-peddling as an example of the corrupt politics they promised to replace.
But Italian judges in October shelved a case against Mr. Renzi’s father, Tiziano, and fined Il Fatto Quotidiano, an Italian newspaper supportive of the Five Star Movement, for defaming him.
“I’m convinced that the sins of the father should not be visited upon the sons,” Mr. Renzi wrote on Facebook after the program about Mr. Di Maio’s father aired. “This is something I have always said, unlike Di Maio, who understands it only now.”
He went on to lament Five Star’s “campaign of hate” against his father, who, he wrote, has become reluctant to leave the house and worries about what his grandchildren hear about him. Mr. Renzi’s father recently wrote on Facebook that if he had done what Mr. Di Maio’s father had, Five Star “would already have launched an appeal on social networks for the return of the death penalty.”
(This week, La Verità, another newspaper close to the populist government, alleged new improprieties, prompting Tiziano Renzi to deny that he and his son paid paperboys off the books when they operated a paper route decades ago in Florence.)
Matteo Renzi’s former reforms minister, Maria Elena Boschi, had a similar experience. For years, Five Star and its allies alleged, without proof, that Ms. Boschi used her power in the government to rescue the senior bondholders at the cost of regular stakeholders in the bank where her father worked. Mr. Di Maio claimed his party had “zero conflicts of interest, not like Boschi who makes laws for her father.”
After the allegations against Mr. Di Maio’s father emerged, Ms. Boschi spoke straight to camera in a video posted on Twitter.
“I’d like to look in the face Mr. Antonio Di Maio, the father of Luigi, and say I hope that he does not go through what his son and his friends put my father and my family through,” she said.
Until recently, Mr. Di Maio had responded with outrage, and litigation, to reports about his family. Then the left-leaning newspaper la Repubblica published reports about his father illegally expanding their childhood home in Pomigliano D’Arco. In a Facebook video published on Nov. 7, Mr. Di Maio attacked the reporting and sent “a big hug” to his father. “We were always an honest family who behaved honestly,” he said.
On Nov. 27, Mr. Di Maio faced off on television with la Repubblica’s editor, Mario Calabresi, who pointed out that a lawsuit Five Star had filed against him was mistakenly addressed to his father, Luigi, a police official assassinated by left-wing terrorists in 1972, when the editor was two years old.
The next day, the party’s blog wrote that Mr. Calabresi was so intellectually dishonest that “to tar Luigi Di Maio he is willing even to use the name of his dead father.”
The Five Star Movement is itself no stranger to family connections. A co-founder of the party, the late Gianroberto Casaleggio, bequeathed the web platform upon which the party is operated to his son Davide. Though an unelected internet consultant, Davide Casaleggio is now perhaps the ultimate power broker behind the party.
As Five Star’s popularity has slipped, political observers have begun wondering when the party, or Mr. Casaleggio, might pull the plug on Mr. Di Maio. Waiting in the wings, they say, is Alessandro Di Battista, a charismatic politician who has written a book with the subtitle, “a letter to my son on the courage to change.”
But if Mr. Di Battista steps onto center stage, it is likely he will also bring baggage. His father, Vittorio, kept a bust of Mussolini in his foyer and has proudly proclaimed, “I’m a fascist!”
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the leader of the hard right League party, seems to be enjoying Five Star’s episode of “Family Feud.” He shares power with Mr. Di Maio, but his support is increasing as Mr. Di Maio’s fades.
“I am happy my father is a quiet pensioner,” he said last week, “who at most volunteers in the local parish or plays bridge.”
Orignially published in NYT.