By Lisa Jucca
MILAN (Reuters) - Corruption probes at three major companies have hurt corporate Italy's image with investors and revived memories, just a week before an election, of the scandals that devastated Italian politics in the 1990s.
Defence firm Finmeccanica, oil group Eni and Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world's oldest bank and Italy's third largest, all face judicial probes into crimes ranging from bribing foreign officials to accounting fraud.
"We're facing something very like Tangentopoli," outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti said on Friday, referring to the "Bribesville" scandals 20 years ago. Monti, a technocrat appointed to pull Italy out of a crisis in 2011, is now campaigning on a centrist ticket.
The separate investigations have been going on for months, but prosecutors have taken high-profile steps lately, starting with the discovery of big losses on financial derivatives trades at Monte dei Paschi, a bank close to the center-left Democratic Party (PD), which leads in opinion polls for the February 24-25 vote.
That was followed by Eni chief executive Paolo Scaroni being formally placed under investigation last week over an allegation that Eni's oilfield engineering subsidiary Saipem paid bribes to win a contract in Algeria.
This week started with the arrest of Giuseppe Orsi, head of partially state-owned Finmeccanica - which employs more Italians than any other firm bar Fiat - over alleged bribes the company paid to win an Indian helicopter order.
Orsi, Scaroni, Eni, Finmeccanica and the former executives at the center of the Monte dei Paschi probe deny any wrongdoing.
On Thursday, four executives at other firms were detained in four other probes - ranging from embezzlement in the building of a soccer stadium to market rigging. Among these was the former head of Monte dei Paschi's finance department.
"Bribesville is Back," read a banner headline in the daily La Repubblica on Friday, drawing parallels with the high-level cases of political corruption that brought Italy's Cold War-era party system crashing down two decades ago.
"A week before the vote, citizens are heading for the ballot box through the rubble of a new Tangentopoli," it said in a front-page editorial under the headline "Sins of the Elite".
Weary of corruption, Italians might welcome a crackdown, but with an election looming, many have been quick to spot the party connections of some of the major companies involved and to suspect political motives, despite denials from the judiciary.
"Finmeccanica has been under the spotlight for a good 18 months, and suddenly there is an arrest," said Luca Caprai, founder of Cruciani, a maker of macrame bracelets.
"If this is the beginning of a clean-up, it will be good for the country. But I would not want to find out that the company is paying for mistakes it never made."
While Monte dei Paschi, based in Siena, has links to the PD, Finmeccanica chief Giuseppe Orsi was appointed with backing from the Northern League, an ally of former conservative premier Silvio Berlusconi, whose period in office was dogged by scandal and ended 15 months ago to make way for Monti.
Media tycoon Berlusconi chided judges for pursuing Finmeccanica, saying it simply acted like foreign competitors to win sales. Monti in turn said on Friday Berlusconi was being "provincial".
The companies at the center of the scandals, which account for nearly 30 percent of Italy's blue-chip stocks index, have suffered heavy falls in their share prices in recent weeks.
Finmeccanica lost 11 percent in value in two days after the arrest of Orsi. center-right politicians criticized not only the judiciary but also Monti's government, arguing ministers should have replaced Orsi last year when he was first investigated.
PELTED WITH COINS
Italy ranks 72th - between Brazil and Bulgaria - in a Transparency International index that measures corruption in a country as perceived by business managers, one of the worst scores among rich Western nations. Major EU competitors France and Spain rank 22nd and 30th, while Germany is in 13th place.
All of Italy's main parties have been implicated in graft, leaving many voters with the feeling that little has changed since the Tangentopoli scandals.
In another incident reminiscent of the Bribesville days, a small group of protesters pelted former Monte dei Paschi chairman Giuseppe Mussari, hitherto one of Siena's most powerful figures, with coins and shouted "Thief!" as he walked into the prosecutor's office to be questioned on Friday.
Italians will recognize it as a replay of the treatment meted out to former prime minister Bettino Craxi, a symbol of the Tangentopoli scandal, as he left a Rome hotel just before fleeing for Tunisia in 1994.
Among analysts there is, however, some sympathy for Berlusconi's view that Finmeccanica may be suffering for tougher enforcement in Italy than, they believe, in competitor nations against bribing foreign officials to win international tenders.
"For companies such as Finmeccanica, corruption is in a way the result of globalization; it's the hidden price that a company must pay to get access to certain markets," said Stefano Zamagni, a professor of economics at the University of Bologna.
"It is obvious that the economic damage is great."
Other major exporting countries also prosecute companies caught bribing foreign officials to win contracts.
Many in business say they welcome efforts by Monti, a former EU commissioner, to crack down on corruption among Italian officials and hope the next administration can help improve their country's reputation.
Though less ambitious than Monti's original proposal, parliament endorsed new measures in November to increase penalties for demanding bribes and other abuses of office.
"The current government has managed to push through an anti-corruption law. This is maybe not exactly what people had hoped for, but it is nonetheless a step forward," said Sandro De Poli, chief executive of U.S. industrial giant GE's Italian arm.
"The issue has now been raised, and I hope the next government can do better."
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Rome and Silvia Aloisi in Milan; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Will Waterman)