|Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi is accused of paying Karima El Mahroug for sex when she was 17-years old [Reuters]
Italian police have arrested a businessman on charges of allegedly extorting money from Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, to ensure the man's co-operation in an inquiry over recruiting prostitutes to attend wild parties at Berlusconi's home.
Giampaolo Tarantini and his wife, Angela Devenuto, were detained in Rome on Thursday morning, and a third suspect is being sought, police in Naples said.
Tarantini has admitted that he paid a high-end prostitute, Patrizia D'Addario, and other women to attend parties at Berlusconi's residences, but insists the prime minister did not know. Tarantini is under investigation in Bari for allegedly aiding and abetting prostitution.
Francesco Greco, a Naples prosecutor, said Berlusconi had paid the Tarantini family's legal and housing costs, with the intention of securing Tarantini's co-operation 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 entered 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 did not specify the amount paid, but Panorama news magazine, which broke news of the investigation last week, said Tarantini received $722,000 and subsequent monthly payments from the prime minister.
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 prime minister has said he did not feel victimised by Tarantini and that 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 publication that he owns.
"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 denies latest sex scandal
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 prime minister 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 favour with the prime minister, hoping to improve his unrelated business dealings.
He has insisted Berlusconi did not pay the women and did not 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.
Berlusconi 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 investigations by prosecutors he contends are left-leaning sympathisers intent on ruining his political career.