August 9, 2007 / 2:11 PM / 12 years ago

Motorcycle champ Rossi's tax probe shocks Italy

MILAN (Reuters) - An Italian crackdown on tax cheats has swept up former motorcycle champion Valentino Rossi, shocking a nation with the thought that a fresh-faced sports hero could be involved in such evasion.

Yamaha MotoGP rider Valentino Rossi of Italy celebrates his victory after the Dutch Motorcycling Grand Prix at the TT circuit in Assen, eastern Netherlands June 30, 2007. REUTERS/Toussaint Kluiters/Files

Rossi, whose seven world titles and marketable boy-next-door charm have made him Italy’s richest sportsman, is being investigated for suspected tax evasion on undeclared revenues of 60 million euros ($83 million), the state tax agency said on Wednesday.

Rossi said his tax consultants were checking the matter.

The state is going after Rossi for a total of 112 million euros, a source close to the situation said.

The figure comprises 43.7 million euros of unpaid tax as well as fines and interest that almost triple the amount he owes Italy, the source said.

The inquiry is linked to Rossi’s decision in 2000 to take up residence in Britain to take advantage of its tax regime.

“For seven months of the year I travel the world for my job. The tax agency is rightly doing its job ... My consultants are already examining the issue,” he said in a statement late on Wednesday to ANSA news agency.

The 28-year-old rider is the biggest name to be caught up in the fight against tax cheats since Italian agents seized Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona’s Rolex watches last year to help pay off back taxes.

‘NAIVE TAXPAYER’

“There is a special sorrow ... in discovering that even a boy who is young, lucky, a genius in his field, the freshest and most unusual among personalities to have come out in recent years, is mixed up in the same old intolerable muck that makes this country unliveable,” a la Repubblica columnist said in a front-page editorial.

“Rossi might be a phenomenal sportsman, but a naive taxpayer,” Corriere della Sera wrote.

Italy has been riveted by the bubbly Rossi since his first world title 10 years ago.

The Yamaha rider is the youngest man to have won world titles in all three motorcycling classes. He won four MotoGP titles from 2002 to 2005.

He lost his title last year to American Nicky Hayden. Rossi is second in the 2007 standings behind Australia’s Casey Stoner.

Italy’s centre-left government estimates the cost of tax evasion at 7 percent of gross domestic product, or about 100 billion euros a year.

Italy could turn to the European Union to try to strike down British law under which “a more or less fictitious residence in London allows you not to pay taxes in your own country”, said Vincenzo Visco, the government’s tax chief.

Additional reporting by Giselda Vagnoni in Rome

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