Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation into possible international corruption following media reports that the ruling League party sought millions of euros via a secret Russian oil deal, two sources said on Thursday.
League leader Matteo Salvini (photo above), who serves as both deputy prime minister and interior minister in the government, has denied that his party received any money from Moscow.
Italian news magazine L’Espresso reported in February that Salvini’s former spokesman Gianluca Savoini had held talks in Moscow last October with Russian businessmen about a possible oil deal that would enable funds to be siphoned to the League.
Savoini denied the allegations at the time. The U.S. website Buzzfeed said on Wednesday it had received an audio recording of the Moscow meeting and published a transcript where Savoini can be heard discussing a mooted oil deal.
Savoini told the Italian media on Thursday that he met a group of unnamed businessmen but denies any wrongdoing and says the League did not receive any money from the Russians.
Two sources with knowledge of the case told Reuters magistrates opened their probe following the release of the article in L’Espresso.
One of the sources said investigators were aware of the audio recording before Buzzfeed published its story.
Contacted by Reuters, Savoini declined to comment on news of the judicial investigation, which is being overseen by Fabio De Pasquale, who heads a team of magistrates pursuing international economic cases.
Italian law forbids parties from accepting donations from foreign entities and the opposition centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has demanded that Salvini appear in parliament to address the allegations.
Salvini has looked to forge close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has paid several visits to Moscow in recent years. He has repeatedly denounced EU economic sanctions on Russia and pledged to try to overturn them.
Putin visited Rome last week and praised Salvini, telling Corriere della Sera newspaper he was “in constant contact” with the League. “Salvini has a welcoming attitude towards our country,” the Russian leader said.
Both Salvini and Savoini attended a dinner thrown by the Italian government to honour the visiting Putin.
Tough financing laws in Italy aimed at stamping out years of corruption have left parties struggling to fill their coffers.
An Italian court last year gave the League 75 years to pay back some 49 million euros it owes the state following a graft trial involving its previous chief, Umberto Bossi. Salvini warned at the time that his party faced bankruptcy.