ROME Italian police have arrested Claudio Scajola, industry minister in the last government of ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, on suspicion of helping a former party colleague convicted of mafia association to flee justice, authorities said on Thursday.
The case adds one more scandal for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party to deal with following his own conviction for tax evasion But the political fallout, including any impact on the party's vote in the upcoming European election, remains unclear.
Scajola was forced to resign in 2010 over accusations of a shady real estate deal involving the purchase of a luxury flat near the Colosseum in Rome but was cleared of wrongdoing by a court earlier this year.
Antimafia police in the southern city of Reggio Calabria said Scajola had been arrested over his links with Amedeo Matacena, a Calabrian businessman and former lawmaker from centre-right Forza Italia.
No comment was immediately available from Scajola's lawyer. He made no remarks to television reporters as he was filmed leaving a police station in Rome on Thursday.
Matacena, convicted over links to 'Ndrangheta, the powerful Calabrian mafia, is currently a fugitive from justice, the DIA antimafia unit said in a statement. According to Italian press reports, he was arrested in Dubai last year but subsequently released from custody.
Chief prosecutor Federico Cafiero de Raho said Scajola was suspected, along with a number of other well-placed individuals, of helping Matacena leave Italy and transfer his fortune abroad to evade justice.
"We followed his contacts and as part of that procedure it emerged that he was helped by different people, including Scajola," Cafiero de Raho told Sky TG24 television.
The DIA statement said police were now searching properties across Italy and had seized assets worth around 50 million euros ($69.61 million).
Scajola had been expected to be a candidate for Forza Italia in the European parliamentary elections later this month but in the end was not selected, although Berlusconi denied that the party was aware of the case surrounding Matacena.
"It is a very, very, very, very painful thing," he told Radio Capital in an interview on Thursday. He said the decision not to present Scajola as a candidate was made because of fears of a press campaign against him over the house-buying affair.
"We'd seen from polling that putting him up as candidate would have lowered our overall vote," he said.
Last month Marcello Dell'Utri, another of Berlusconi's inner circle, was arrested in Lebanon. He had been declared a fugitive from justice after leaving Italy before a court was due to deliver a final verdict on charges of mafia collusion.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)