By Laura Viggiano
NAPLES, Italy (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi faced renewed scandal on Thursday after a businessman linked to a 2009 prostitution case was arrested on suspicion of extorting hundreds of thousands of euros from the Italian prime minister.
Giampaolo Tarantini, an entrepreneur from the southern city of Bari, and his wife Angela Devenuto were arrested after payments from Berlusconi totaling as much as half a million euros were uncovered by investigators, prosecutors said.
A warrant was also issued for another man, Valter Lavitola, who prosecutors said was a consultant linked to defense and aerospace group Finmeccanica.
The arrests return the spotlight to a prostitution scandal which dominated headlines in 2009 when Patrizia D'Addario, an escort connected with Tarantini, claimed to have been paid to attend parties at Berlusconi's private residence in Rome.
The prime minister told Italian news agencies on Thursday that the case was "pure fantasy," repeating previous statements that he had been simply helping Tarantini out of financial difficulties.
He also shrugged off case documents containing a transcript of a conversation in which he is alleged to have said he was going to leave Italy.
According to the prosecution transcript seen by Reuters, Berlusconi told Lavitola during the taped phone call on July 13: "In a few months I'm going to go away ... go away from this shit country ... of which I'm sickened."
On Thursday, Berlusconi said he would remain in the country to bring about change.
The fresh scandal comes at a time when Berlusconi's center-right government is struggling to tie up a revised 45.5 billion euro austerity package designed to reassure anxious markets about the solidity of Italy's strained public finances.
Naples prosecutors said that the arrests had been made after extensive investigations that included wiretap evidence.
"Serious and consistent indications were found of repeated payments to the Tarantini couple of sums in cash and other benefits of a financial nature by Silvio Berlusconi," the Naples prosecutors' office said in statement.
The payments used "hidden or at least untransparent means" and involved the intervention of Lavitola, it added.
"RUBY AFFAIR" UNRELATED
The latest case is unrelated to the so-called "Ruby affair" in which Berlusconi is on trial in Milan accused of paying for sex with teenaged nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, known as "Ruby Heartstealer," when she was a minor.
It was a reminder of the scandals still hanging over the government as it battles to prevent Italy being dragged back into the center of the euro zone debt crisis.
Prosecutors said Tarantini and Lavitola, who appeared to have kept part of the money paid into front companies for himself, had acted together "to force Berlusconi to make further payments."
No comment was immediately available from lawyers acting for either of the two.
Tarantini, who was closely involved in the D'Addario affair, is being investigated separately over allegations that he provided paid escorts to curry political favours.
The current investigation is focused on suspicions that Tarantini lied to investigators when he told them repeatedly that Berlusconi was unaware that women brought to parties at his residences were prostitutes, Italian media said.
(Writing by James Mackenzie and Catherine Hornby; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Heavens)