The Administrative Regional Court of Lazio (TAR Lazio) has now ruled on the dispute over the controversial lease of Certosa di Trisulti, previously discussed here. The Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) has been allowed to maintain the lease and management of this public cultural heritage site in Italy.
The controversy began on the 16th of October 2017, when the DHI placed the winning bid in a public tender granting the lease and management of the 13th Century Carthusian monastery of Trisulti for a period of 19 years. DHI’s motto is ‘[d]efending the Judaeo-Christian foundations of Western Civilisation through the recognition that Man is made in the Image and Likeness of God’ and it includes Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House Chief Strategist, as one of its patrons.
On the 16th of October 2019, exactly two years after the public tender was concluded, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Activities and Tourism (MiBACT) decided to revoke the grant, stating that DHI had ab origine failed to meet the eligibility requirements for such a grant. In particular, the Ministry grounded its decision on the following issues: (i) DHI is not incorporated as a legal entity; (ii) DHI’s aims and activities are not engaged with the care and preservation of heritage sites, which also entails that (iii) DHI therefore lacks the minimum period of 5 years’ experience that is legally required of those entrusted with the lease and management of public cultural heritage sites. The Ministry’s decision was heavily supported by many cultural associations, which have since sought to intervene in the court proceedings in its favour.
TAR Lazio granted an interim order temporarily suspending the effects of the Ministry’s decision. On the 13th of May 2020, the Court ruled in favour of DHI, thereby rescinding the Ministry’s decree and confirming DHI’s entitlement to the grant. The ruling was primarily determined by the Ministry’s tardiness in revoking the grant.
According to Italian Law, in particular Law 241 dated 7th of August 1990, there is a term of 18 months during which civil administration bodies and public entities are empowered to annul grants or measures “which confer economic advantages” onto their beneficiaries. Thereafter, however, only grants or measures given on the basis of inaccurate or mendacious declarations, as ascertained by a criminal proceeding, can be excepted from the “18-month rule” and still be revoked at a later stage.
In the present case, the Ministry claimed that the “18-month rule” should not be applied, primarily because (i) the grant does not confer any economic advantages to its beneficiary – quite the contrary, given that under the terms of the resulting agreement DHI would have to pay rent for its use of the heritage site and (ii) DHI would have made inaccurate or mendacious declarations in order to obtain the grant, thus arising an exception to the 18-month rule, as discussed above.
DHI counterclaimed that the Ministry’s decree revoking the grant was an abuse of power carried out in violation of the Italian Constitution, specifically articles 2, 18 and 21, which refer to the fundamental rights of inviolable human rights, religious freedom and freedom of thought and speech respectively.
TAR Lazio’s decision rejected the Ministry’s argument that there was a valid exception to the 18-month rule in the present case, from which followed the conclusion that the decree revoking the grant to DHI was unlawful. Moreover, the Court held that the Ministry failed to produce evidence of the alleged inaccurate or mendacious declarations that DHI would have made in order to obtain the grant, and there certainly was no conclusive criminal judgement in this regard in support of the Ministry’s claim. As such, given that the fact pattern of the case had not changed and that no new documents or other evidence had since come to light, TAR Lazio held that the Ministry could only have revoked the grant to DHI within the aforementioned term of 18 months, which expired on the 16th of April 2019. Lastly, the Court also deemed that all intervention requests from cultural associations in support of the Ministry lacked actual and specific interest in the matter in order to justify their participation in the proceedings, as none of them had been involved in the public tender.
In spite of this administrative court ruling on the matter, however, the dispute is not quite yet finished, as the Ministry has stated it will appeal to the Consiglio di Stato (State Council). Until then, DHI continues to enjoy its lease of this wonderful 13th Century cultural heritage site in the region of Lazio.