Italian police arrested a businessman Thursday on charges of allegedly extorting money from Premier Silvio Berlusconi to ensure the man's cooperation in a probe over recruiting prostitutes to attend wild parties at Berlusconi's home.
Giampaolo Tarantini and his wife Angela Devenuto were picked up in Rome on Thursday morning, and a third suspect is being sought, police in Naples said. Berlusconi is not under investigation in this case.
Tarantini has admitted he paid a high-end prostitute, Patrizia D'Addario, and other women to attend parties at Berlusconi's residences, but insists the premier didn't know. Tarantini is currently under investigation in Bari for allegedly aiding and abetting prostitution.
Naples Prosecutor Francesco Greco said Berlusconi had paid the Tarantini family's legal and housing costs, with the end result aimed at securing Tarantini's cooperation in the Bari prostitution investigation.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press in Rome, Greco alleged that the payment was aimed at ensuring that Tarantini enters a plea bargain rather than letting the case go to trial. Such a move would limit the publication of possibly embarrassing telephone intercepts concerning the women who went to Berlusconi's parties.
Greco didn't specify the amount paid, but the Panorama news magazine, which broke news of the investigation last week, said Tarantini received euro500,000 ($722,000) and subsequent monthly payments from the premier.
The alleged middleman, Valter Lavitola, is being sought. In a statement, Greco said Lavitola had intervened to facilitate the payments from Berlusconi and had conspired with Tarantini to make sure they kept coming.
Berlusconi is not under investigation and is considered the victim in the case, a Naples policewoman said. The premier has said he didn't feel victimized by Tarantini and says he was just helping a needy family.
"I helped someone and a family with children who found themselves and continue to find themselves in very serious financial difficulty," Berlusconi was quoted as saying by Panorama, a magazine in his media empire. "I didn't do anything illegal, I limited myself to helping a desperate man without asking for anything in exchange. That's how I'm made and nothing will change that."
Berlusconi himself is on trial in Milan for allegedly paying a 17-year-old for sex at some of his parties. Both deny the allegations. The premier is known for handing out generous envelopes of cash and other gifts to women and his friends.
Paying for sex with a prostitute is not a crime in Italy, unless the woman is under 18. Profiting off a prostitute is a crime. Tarantini has admitted he recruited D'Addario and others and paid their travel expenses to come to parties at Berlusconi's residences so he could win favor with the premier in hopes of improving his unrelated business dealings.
He has insisted Berlusconi didn't pay the women and didn't know that he did.
D'Addario says she slept with Berlusconi at his Rome residence and tape recorded the encounter _ recordings that were later leaked to an Italian news magazine.
The conservative leader has said he has never paid anyone for sex but has made no apologies for his lifestyle. His penchant for young women prompted his second wife, Veronica Lario, to announce in 2009 that she was divorcing him.
Berlusconi has repeatedly blamed his legal woes on probes by prosecutors he contends are left-leaning sympathizers intent on ruining his political career.
Naples chief prosecutor, Domenico Lepore, told reporters that with the extortion probe Berlusconi won't be able to depict himself as the victim of prosecutors.
"This time, no," Lepore said. "It is we who are defending him" from alleged extortion in a case in which the premier is seen as victim.
As for Berlusconi's claims that he was helping Tarantini and his family with financial difficulties, Lepore expressed puzzlement, adding, if need be, prosecutors will seek to question the premier about the contention.