Opposition leaders demanded an inquiry Saturday to see if Italian government aircraft flew a bevy of young escorts to Premier Silvio Berlusconi's private parties.
Concern was also growing in Italy over whether the billionaire media mogul premier who allegedly boasted in an intercepted phone conversation that he "did only eight" women in one night can concentrate on rescuing Italy from its severe economic woes.
Italian newspapers were filled with transcripts of intercepted phone conversations of a jailed southern businessman, Gianpaolo Tarantini, who is being investigated for allegedly arranging and paying for women to prostitute themselves with the premier at parties at Berlusconi's private residences in Rome, the Sardinia seacoast, and near Milan.
Intercepted conversations that are part of investigations may be published once they are officially deposited in the court _ in this case, in Bari, southeast Italy.
Berlusconi, who turns 75 later this month, has denied ever paying for sex. But he has boasted of his weakness for young, beautiful women, an inclination cited by his second wife, who is divorcing him.
Prostitution is not a crime in Italy, but exploiting prostitutes _ as Tarantini is alleged to have done to try to curry favors with Berlusconi to win state contracts _ is. In a separate probe, Tarantini is jailed for allegedly extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from Berlusconi. The premier says he gave Tarantini and Tarantini's wife, who was also arrested, money because he is a generous man who was trying to help a "family in need."
However, paying for sex with an underage person is a crime in Italy. In a separate case, Berlusconi is on trial in Milan for allegedly paying for sex with a Moroccan teenager. Berlusconi denies the accusation, and contends that that trial, as well as several corruption cases that were brought against him over dealings in his business empire, is part of a plot by prosecutors he says sympathize with the left and want to topple him from power.
The Milan daily Corriere della Sera quoted the premier as telling Tarantini in one telephone call that he had to go that evening to Milan because the plane at his disposition was only available then. Tarantini then purportedly asks Berlusconi if he and some of the women could go with him from Rome to Milan, and the premier replies "you can."
Leoluca Orlandi of the opposition centrist Italy of Values party insisted that Berlusconi say if government planes "paid with taxpayer money" flew paid escorts to his private soirees. Orlandi added in a statement that his party has asked the premier's office to conduct an urgent inquiry.
The speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, meanwhile, suggested it was time for Berlusconi to step down.
"No one understands why the premier is dedicating a good deal of his time to questions not related to fighting the economic crisis and relaunching the economy," Gianfranco Fini, a former Berlusconi ally, told reporters at a rally near Milan.
In one of the conversations, Berlusconi purportedly tells a frequent female guest at his parties, "I am premier in my spare time."
The Corriere della Sera cautioned its readers that in running four full pages of transcripts, it left out "the heavier or more vulgar passages, as well as detailed sexual descriptions" that were picked up in the phone calls intercepted by Italy's financial police.
The Rome daily La Repubblica quoted Berlusconi telling Tarantini in one call in early 2009 that one night 11 women were lined outside his room. The premier then confided that "I only did eight of them because I couldn't do it anymore." He adding that, while "you can't do all of them," the next morning he felt "well, satisfied with my ability to resist the siege of a lifetime."
Reflected in many of the conversations Tarantini had with women he allegedly was recruiting for paid sex with Berlusconi is an entrenched national culture where sexy women become symbols and instruments of power, especially in the world of politics and TV entertainment.
In a conversation, the media mogul brags that at one of the parties male guests include an executive in his entertainment empire and another from state TV in charge of the made-for-TV fiction division.
"So, this way the girls will get the idea that they are in front of men who can decide their destiny," Berlusconi is quoted as saying. He refers to the two "as little old men who, however, have much power." As for female guests, Berlusconi purportedly tells Tarantini that he "has two little girls," including one who is a journalist for state TV and another one, a "very nice, very sweet Neapolitan" woman working at his Mediaset private network.
One showgirl, according to what Tarantini says in a phone conversation with a female friend, was purportedly promised she would be chosen to host Italy's annual San Remo song festival, which runs on state TV. Being the host is a highly paid and prestigious job. According to La Repubblica, the showgirl reportedly spurned the prospect and didn't come to a dinner at Berlusconi's Rome residence.