Italy justice minister faces calls to quit over influence allegations

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 02, 2013 1:11 PM
Italy justice minister faces calls to quit over influence allegations

By Steve Scherer

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri faced calls to resign on Saturday over accusations she used her influence to get the ailing daughter of a former insurance magnate out of prison.

The loss of an influential minister could further destabilize Prime Minister Enrico Letta's fragile right-left coalition, where tensions are already running high ahead of a vote to expel center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi from parliament later this month over his conviction for tax fraud.

The opposition 5-Star Movement said on Friday it would present a no-confidence motion against Cancellieri. The Democratic Party (PD), the largest bloc supporting the government, called on her to address parliament on the matter.

Cancellieri rejected the resignation demands, saying she stepped in only because of her concern for the health of Giulia Ligresti, former insurance mogul Salvatore Ligresti's oldest daughter, and that she had done the same for dozens of others.

"I had a duty to do what I did for a person suffering from anorexia who had not eaten for days and who has small children," Cancellieri told reporters after speaking at the Radical Party congress in Chianciano Terme, Italy, on Saturday.

For the first time the prime minister weighed in on the matter on Saturday, saying the government was "certain" that the minister's testimony in parliament would "dispel all doubt," a statement said.

Cancellieri will testify in parliament on Tuesday, a spokesman said.

The scandal erupted on Thursday when la Repubblica newspaper printed the transcript of a tapped phone call between the justice minister and the wife of Ligresti on the day he was arrested, along with his two daughters and ex-company managers.

"You can count on me," Cancellieri said according to a transcript of the July 17 call seen by Reuters. The recording was made as part of a Turin court investigation into false accounting and market manipulation at insurer Fondiaria-SAI, which the Ligresti family controlled until last year.

On August 28, after members of the Ligresti family and the minister exchanged several text messages and calls regarding Giulia's health in the previous weeks, she was freed from prison and put under house arrest.

The Turin court said on Friday that the minister's actions had no influence on her release from prison. Instead, the court said, she was let go after a medical examination found her continued imprisonment would have been a "danger" to her health, and after she agreed to accept a plea bargain.

But her long friendship with the Ligresti family and the fact Cancellieri's son, Piergiorgio Peluso, earned several million euros as an executive at Fondiaria-SAI when he worked there for little over a year in 2011-2012 has fuelled criticism that the minister acted out of a conflict of interest.

The minister's actions "could appear to be the payment of a debt after her son's gain," 5-Star leader Beppe Grillo wrote on his blog on Saturday. "Cancellieri is part of a world made up of politicians, bankers, institutions, investors who are all inextricably linked as if in a petrified forest."

(Additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio and Antonella Cinelli in Milan, Ilaria Polleschi in Milan; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Sonya Hepinstall)