Salvatore Sciascia, Fininvest's head of tax affairs, admitted paying members of the Guardia di Finanza, or financial police, substantial sums of money in exchange for easy treatment during tax inspections.
Mr Sciascia and his assistant, Gianmarco Rizzi, were among 23 people for whom arrest warrants were issued on Saturday. The government had abandoned a decree suspending magistrates's powers to order the detention of corruption suspects 24 hours previously, after a nationwide outcry. An official in the financial police has said that all large companies paid the bribes, and several leading Italian companies, including one of the largest holding groups, Gemina, are under investigation.
The judges' inquiries into Fininvest have rekindled disquiet over Mr Berlusconi's refusal to stand aside from the running of the company, although the Prime Minister himself is not implicated. There was uproar in parliament yesterday when the opposition demanded an explanation of reports that the Prime Minister held a meeting at his villa near Milan to decide on Fininvest's response to the arrests. Luigi Berlinguer, of the former Communist PDS, asked the government to explain the meeting, attended by the Fininvest chairman, Fedele Confalonieri, the Defence Minister, Cesare Previti, himself a former Fininvest lawyer, Mr Sciascia's lawyer and the cabinet under-secretary, Gianni Letta.
Most worryingly for Mr Berlusconi, his allies, the Northern League and the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance, are refusing to support him on the issue. Both parties campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and forced the government to back down over its attempt to curb magistrates' powers. They were unsympathetic yesterday when members of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party accused the magistrates of victimising Fininvest in revenge.
In a warning of what corruption suspects may expect in court, the first corruption case involving the former prime minister and Socialist leader, Bettino Craxi, drew to a close yesterday, with the prosecutor demanding an 11-year jail term.
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