Corruption hunt reaches culture minister: Protestations of innocence fail to protect man behind Uffizi appeal from joining long list of those under investigation

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ITALY'S high-profile Culture Minister, Alberto Ronchey, became the latest politician to be caught up in the seemingly bottomless corruption scandal yesterday, after magistrates notified him that he was under investigation for 'irregularities' in the state's purchase of a villa in Rome.

Giovanni Goria, a former prime minister and finance minister who has already received two warnings about separate corruption inquiries, was also served with a notice. A spokesman for Mr Ronchey, 67, denied the charges. 'The Minister is perfectly untroubled (by the warning), since he believes that he bears no responsibility for any matters related to the inquiry,' the spokesman said.

Mr Ronchey, a respected former journalist, has maintained a high profile since his appointment as Culture Minister in June last year. His appointment, non-political given that he was not an MP, was widely applauded. When the Uffizi gallery was severely damaged by a car bomb in May, Mr Ronchey threw his authority behind an international appeal for funds to restore the museum, saying that he personally would be accountable for their use. The fund was supported by many European newspapers, including the Independent.

Government spokesmen yesterday emphasised that the notification of investigation merely marked the referral of queries over the purchase of the Villa Blanc, a mansion in its own grounds, to investigating magistrates. Their next task is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed with the case. Few believe Mr Ronchey is personally involved in wrongdoing but rather that, in the present climate, he is paying the price for improprieties within his ministry.

Earlier yesterday police released the former president of the chemicals giant Montedison, Giuseppe Garofano, from jail in Milan after he gave investigators a damning account of the way his company had bought favours from just about every member of Italy's traditional coalition governments. He remains under house arrest. A similar result emerged from the questioning of Carlo Sama, the company's financial director and the brother-in-law of Raul Gardini, the flamboyant industrialist and former chairman of the huge Ferruzzi conglomerate which included Montedison. Gardini shot himself last week after reading that Mr Garofano had told the inquiry that Gardini had fiddled company accounts to hide losses and channel funds to political parties.

The sums involved are staggering - a total of 150bn lire (about pounds 75m) - the biggest payment so far recorded in the Tangentopoli, or Bribesville saga. The cash was divided according to influence and greed. Bettino Craxi, the former Socialist leader already cited in investigations into illegal party funding, allegedly received the lion's share, 75bn lire. Arnaldo Forlani, former chairman of the Christian Democrats, friend and ally of the disgraced seven-times prime minister Giulio Andreotti, was apparently content with 35bn lire.

Paolo Cirino Pomicino, a former Christian Democrat budget minister under investigation on corruption charges, is said to have received 'only' 10bn lire, as is Claudio Martelli, the former Socialist justice minister. Some of the money, it was understood, was kept by the politicians themselves. Mr Martelli yesterday wrote to the speaker of the lower house, Giorgio Napoletano, denying the latest charges, but saying he was taking a period of leave from the house 'to clear my name'.

The list continues with smaller sums, reading like a Who's Who of Italian politics in the 1980s: Severino Citaristi, another Christian Democrat; Carlo Vizzini, the ex-leader of the Social Democrats; Giorgio La Malfa, the ex-leader of the Republican Party (whose appeal to voters was based on much-vaunted small-party honesty); Renato Altissimo, the ex- leader of the Liberals. All have been notified, in what has become almost a ritual part of political life here, of investigations against them.

Their responses to the allegations have differed dramatically. Mr La Malfa admitted accepting funds from Mr Sama but insisted that they were only improper because undeclared by the party: there were no favours offered in exchange, he said.

Mr Forlani denied it all. 'The size of the sum should be enough to prove the absurdity of the claim,' he said. Mr Craxi alleged persecution. 'I have already suffered one gross injustice. I am not going to tolerate any more,' he said, adding darkly that 'if this continues one day I shall just decide to remove myself from the scene', a hint generally taken to mean suicide rather than flight abroad. If so he would be the 13th 'illustrious suicide', as they are becoming known, to be claimed by the scandal.