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MILAN, Italy (Reuters) - They usually met in Milan although on Wednesdays they lunched in Rome. But for the seven men arrested on suspicion of corruption, the menu was always the same, prosecutors said: alleged bribes to obtain building contracts for Italy's Expo 2015 world fair.
Milan prosecutors are investigating whether the group of former politicians and entrepreneurs rigged contracts for Expo and other public tenders, including a 67 million euro contract to build facilities for next year's Universal Exhibition, according to a copy of the arrest warrant seen by Reuters.
Details of the case, revealed in the prosecutors' warrant, have reminded Italians of the 1990s, when a wave of high-profile bribery cases landed top businessmen and politicians in jail and broke-up Italy's post-war party system.
Two decades later, despite promises from the new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, that he will invigorate the economy, business is still often murky, with some of Italy's most prominent companies under investigation.
Corruption still exists in Italy, lawyers and prosecutors say, because many of the old offenders are still around - in some cases well past the normal retirement age - and Italian society typically takes a forgiving attitude to their crimes.
Despite repeated attempts to clean up politics and business, Italy still ranks 69 out of 177 countries in Transparency International's corruption index, below most European nations.
Two of the people under investigation in the Expo case - 74-year-old Gianstefano Frigerio, a former local leader of Italy's Christian Democrats, and Primo Greganti, 70, former member of the defunct Communist Party - served jail time in the early 1990s after being convicted for corruption and illicit political party financing.
They both denied wrongdoing in the Expo case when questioned by prosecutors, according to people close to the investigation. Frigerio had no comment, his lawyer said, while Greganti's lawyer said his client denied any wrongdoing.
"In Italy corruption is above all a cultural problem," says Raffaele Cantone, a magistrate who heads Italy's anti-bribery authority and who was put in charge of the Expo 2015 organization after the recent arrests.
"Those who have been involved in corruption cases, once they have served their sentence, are welcomed back with open arms by the business world, politicians, by the entire society."
Cantone says the Expo case shows how corruption in Italy has evolved over the past 25 years. In the case of the so-called "Clean Hands" trials of the early 1990s, political parties were the center of kickback schemes linked to public works contracts.
"Today politics has a secondary role. The real novelty is that we see a web of business intermediaries that want to get their hands on the bribe money. We still have political parties, of course, but they are a means rather than an end," says Cantone, who is famous in Italy for his investigations against the Naples-based organized crime group, the Camorra.
Among cases currently winding through Italian courts is an investigation into possible kickbacks for contracts to rebuild the city of L'Aquila, hit by an earthquake in 2009.
Prosecutors are also investigating defense giant Finmeccanica and oil services group Saipem for alleged corruption linked to international contracts. Both companies deny any wrongdoing.
The Expo arrests are a political problem for Renzi, who was forced to hurry to Milan last week to renew his commitment to the international fair.
He acknowledged the Expo investigation would hurt his party and help the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement in European elections this weekend. Five Star's leader, Beppe Grillo, says the fair is a source of criminal activity.
But Renzi said Expo would go ahead despite the investigation. "We need to stop the thieves, not Expo," Renzi said during his visit.
The stakes are high. Italy is hoping to attract 20 million visitors to Milan for the fair, a feast of futuristic pavilions and other amenities from more than 140 countries and centered on the theme of nutrition.
Local and central governments have earmarked 1.3 billion euros ($1.85 billion) to help fund infrastructure and other public works at what has become Italy's biggest building site.
The fair could boost Italy's economy 10 billion euros and add nearly 200,000 jobs, according to the Expo organizers.
The Expo investigation has alarmed struggling local businessmen, anxious not to lose a big opportunity as the country emerges from its deepest recession in 70 years.
"Expo represents the hope that Italy may be able to overcome this long recession. We must not let anyone steal such hope," said Carlo Sangalli, leader of business lobby Confcommercio.
Investigators began looking into possible mishandling of Expo 2015 contracts last year when they got a tip that Maltauro SpA, a construction group, had received preferential treatment in the awarding of public contracts for the fair. Frigerio and his associates acted as middleman between Maltauro and public officials, prosecutors believe, according to the arrest warrant.
To influence public officials in favor of Maltauro, Frigerio would hold regular meetings at the Centro Culturale Tommaso Moro, a charity based in an elegant early 1900s building in Milan, prosecutors wrote in the arrest warrant.
On most Wednesdays, the meetings moved to the pricy Cesarina restaurant in Rome, not far from the principal setting of Fellini's classic 1960 movie La Dolce Vita, a satire on the affluence and materialism of post-war Rome.
Frigerio got his break in October 2013, when he managed to arrange a meeting with Angelo Paris, procurement manager of Expo 2015, prosecutors wrote in the arrest warrant.
At the meeting on October 29 at Milan's expensive Westin Palace hotel, Paris indicated he would be willing to rig the bids in exchange for career advancement and a way into influential political circles in Rome, according to the warrant.
"I can give you more work than you ever dreamt of. I don't want any (money) for me. I just want tranquility, so that no one will bother me for the next seven or eight years. I can give you all the contracts you want," Paris told one of Frigerio's aides, according to a transcript of a conversation taped by prosecutors and included in the arrest warrant.
According to prosecutors, Paris then allowed several companies, including Maltauro, to have privileged information about the tenders before these were made public. Enrico Maltauro, owner of Maltauro SpA, is under investigation and was arrested this month as part of the case. Maltauro's lawyer Paolo Grasso said his client had partially acknowledged his involvement in a kick-back scheme, but would not give details.
Paris, who is under investigation and was arrested earlier this month, has resigned from Expo SpA. His lawyer, Luca Troyer, said Paris was not part of any group organizing a kick-back system, but that he "admits to making mistakes."
Additional reporting by Manuela D'Alessandro, Editing by Alessandra Galloni