Man who 'provided women' for Berlusconi is held for blackmail

The businessman who allegedly supplied Silvio Berlusconi with women for his parties in Rome and Sardinia has been arrested on charges of blackmailing the Italian premier.

Giampaolo Tarantini, 34, and his wife Angela Devenuto, 32, were detained in Rome yesterday morning "for extorting money from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi", a police statement said. Mr Berlusconi is reported to have paid €500,000 to the businessman from Bari, followed by several smaller payments.

Mr Berlusconi is not under investigation, and has denied being blackmailed by Tarantini. However, the arrest sees an unwelcome return of the spotlight on the sex scandals that have dogged the Prime Minister for years.

Tarantini has said that he recruited about 30 women who were paid to attend 18 of Mr Berlusconi's parties in Rome and Sardinia between September 2008 and January 2009. He has said the women were there to provide sexual favours "if the need arose".

According to prosecutors quoted by Panorama, a magazine owned by the Berlusconi family, Tarantini demanded money in exchange for backing the premier's assertion that he did not know the women were being paid. Francesco Greco, the Naples prosecutor, also alleges that Mr Berlusconi's payments were designed to ensure that Tarantini entered a plea bargain to prevent a lengthy trial over charges Tarantini faced of procuring prostitutes. This would limit the embarrassing details concerning the premier's parties that would have been examined in court. However, in 2009, the newspapers were already full of revelations concerning Mr Berlusconi's private life.

Patrizia D'Addario, one of the women recruited by Tarantini who saw Mr Berlusconi on two occasions on the promise of earning £1,800 per visit, recorded their pillow talk – which found its way into the newspapers. She also appeared on TV to dismiss the Prime Minister's claims that he was unaware she was a prostitute when they slept together at his Rome residence. "He knew – everyone at the parties knew," she said. Soon afterwards, she wrote an infamous kiss-and-tell book.

In June this year Tarantini received a 26-month sentence for supplying cocaine. He is also being investigated on suspicion of supplying prostitutes to centre-left politicians in Bari, and is under investigation as part of an inquiry into corruption surrounding the supply of health equipment to the Puglia region's hospitals.

Mr Berlusconi has insisted that Tarantini did not extort money from him. "I helped someone and a family with children who found themselves and continue to find themselves in very serious financial difficulty," he said. "I didn't do anything illegal: I limited myself to helping a desperate man without asking for anything in exchange."

The Italian leader also denies ever having paid for sex, or knowingly sleeping with prostitutes. He is currently on trial charged with paying for sex with an under-age girl, the Moroccan dancer Karima el-Mahroug, better known as Ruby. He is also charged with abusing his powers as part of a cover-up, which saw Ms Mahroug released prematurely from police custody when she was held for suspected theft in May 2010.