(adds statement by Popolare di Bari)
BARI, Italy, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Italian police have searched the offices of cooperative bank Popolare di Bari as part of an inquiry into the alleged obstruction of regulators, prosecutors said on Thursday.
Italian cooperative banks have come into focus after the government brought in a new law last year which compelled the 10 largest “popolari” banks to become regular joint-stock companies in an effort to improve governance and profitability.
Popolare di Bari is one of just two large cooperative lenders that have yet to restructure.
“The investigation aims to shed light on possible irregularities at the bank in recent years,” Bari prosecutors said in a statement. “The alleged crime is obstruction of regulators.”
A judicial source said no specific person had yet been placed under investigation.
Banca Popolare di Bari said in statement it had operated fairly, both with regards to internal procedures and towards national authorities.
It added that it hoped that the investigation would be closed “in the shortest time possible in order to avoid (consequences) for the lender’s reputation”.
Unlisted cooperative banks such as Popolare di Bari set the value of their shares each year by proposing a price that shareholders are called on to approve.
Other unlisted regional lenders in northeastern Italy, Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca, have been forced to severely cut the value of their shares when they shed their cooperative status. They are now controlled by the banking industry rescue fund Atlante after failing to list.
They have both been placed under investigations for alleged obstruction of regulators after European Central Bank supervisors found that the two banks had lent clients money to buy their shares.
New managers at the two lenders have said it is in their best interest to shed light on past events and they are fully cooperating with prosecutors. (Reporting by Vincenzo Damiani; Writing by Valentina Za; Editing by Greg Mahlich)