MILAN Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has enlisted the head of Italy's new anti-bribery authority to help salvage preparations for next year's world fair Expo 2015 in Milan after a high-profile corruption scandal that risks disrupting the lucrative event.
Seven former lawmakers, managers and public officials were arrested last week over alleged attempts to influence public tenders for the fair, which Italy hopes will attract 20 million visitors and help bolster a still feeble economic recovery.
The center-left leader, visiting the Expo 2015 site in a show of support after the arrests, said former anti-mafia magistrate Raffaele Cantone, at the helm of an anti-corruption authority set up in March, would be charged with ensuring the smooth running of the Expo's works.
He declined to give details of how the newly-created task-force would operate.
The drafting of Cantone underlines the commitment of Italy's government to the Expo, which will feature 60 pavilions built by the 140-plus participant countries around the main exhibition theme of nutrition.
Thousands of events and cultural activities will also take place at the site of Expo 2015, which will run for six months from next May and could generate around 10 billion euros. The exhibition takes place every five years.
The corruption probe around Expo 2015 has rekindled memories of the "Bribesville" scandals that toppled Italy's old party system in the 1990s and risks tainting the country's image abroad just as it is slowly emerging from an economic crisis.
Among those arrested are the event's public procurement manager and two ex-lawmakers jailed during "Bribesville".
Beppe Grillo, a comedian-turned-politician who leads the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement, has urged the government to suspend work for Expo 2015, branding it a "great binge".
However, Renzi insisted Italy must press ahead with Expo 2015, for which the state has already earmarked 1.3 billion euros of funds in new infrastructure and services.
"We need to stop the thieves, not the public works," he said. "We are absolutely convinced that Expo 2015 is an amazing opportunity for Italy."
Italy has long struggled to control rampant corruption and was ranked 69 out of 177 countries in Transparency International's index of world corruption last year, below countries including Montenegro, Ghana and Cuba.
(Reporting by Lisa Jucca; Editing by Gareth Jones)