20 June 2010, 11:54
Rome - One of Italy's most prominent Catholic cardinals and a former minister have been put under investigation as a corruption scandal that has tainted the government spread to touch the Vatican.
Magistrates told Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe and Pietro Lunardi, former Infrastructure and Transport Minister in the centre-right government, they were being investigated for aggravated corruption, judicial sources said.
The magistrates in the central city of Perugia are investigating a web of corruption and favours involving public works contracts, mostly in construction for major events, such as last year's G8 summit and the Millennium celebrations.
Sepe, 67, is being investigated for alleged corruption when he was a Vatican official running the Congregation for Evangelisation of People, a cash-and-real-estate rich department of the Vatican that finances the work of missions abroad.
Sepe, who ran the department until he was moved to Naples in 2006, is suspected of aggravated corruption with Lunardi in connection with a real estate deal.
According to Italian newspapers La Stampa, Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica, in 2004 Lunardi purchased a building in Rome from Sepe's department at a price well below market value.
The next year, when Lunardi was minister, he approved a decree allocating funds for the restoration of historic church buildings, including the 16th century headquarters of the mission department facing Rome's Spanish Steps.
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Lunardi said he would see magistrates in Perugia soon "to clear everything up".
There was no immediate comment from Sepe or the Vatican.
The Perugia investigation has claimed the head of Claudio Scajola, a close ally of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned as industry minister in May.
Scajola resigned after it was found some 900,000 euros of cashier cheques used to buy his luxury Rome apartment overlooking the Colosseum came from a constructor arrested in the political corruption probe. He denies any wrongdoing.
The corruption scandal exploded in February when police arrested four people including Angelo Balducci, the former head of the government department that oversees public works and a construction consultant to Sepe's missions department.
Balducci and the others were accused of orchestrating a web of corruption and kickbacks among constructors, architects and civil servants who managed tens of millions of euros of public works contracts.
Balducci is in jail in Rome. Magistrates have turned down requests for house arrest.
A month after he was arrested, a new scandal involving Balducci and the Vatican erupted when wiretaps implicated him and a member of a Vatican choir in a male prostitution ring.