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Corruption is surging in Italy, says state auditor

ROME (Reuters) - Corruption is rising dramatically in Italy and legal sanctions are no longer a sufficient deterrent, Italy’s state auditor said on Wednesday, fuelling a mounting debate on the morality of public life.

The Rome-based Audit Court, which oversees and controls possible irregularities in public spending, said cases of corruption increased by 229 percent last year from 2008.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is on trial for corruption and accounting fraud and accuses prosecutors of waging a politically motivated campaign against him.

“Corruption is part of our culture and the legal code is no longer enough,” said court president Tullio Lazzaro. “We need a return to ethical behavior on the part of everyone and I do not see that.”

Italy has been hit by a string of high-profile corruption scandals in recent years, ranging from business to politics and even football, and scores of sitting parliamentarians are under investigation or have already been convicted of crimes.

The latest furor involves the civil protection agency, with prosecutors suspecting that public contracts were dished out in return for money and sexual favors.

Many commentators warn that the situation is similar to the early 1990s, before the so-called Clean Hands investigations by Milan prosecutors brought down the political class that had dominated Italy since World War Two.

Industry Minister Claudio Scajola, asked in a television interview about the court’s findings, dismissed the parallel.

He said while corruption penalties needed to be harsh, it was also necessary to speed up bureaucratic procedures “so there is no temptation for people to corrupt public officials,” to obtain licenses.

According to Transparency International, in 2009 Italy was 63rd in its league table of integrity in public life, slipping eight places from the year before and coming second last in the the euro zone and lower than Botswana and Namibia.

Reporting by Virginia Alimenti, writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Jon Boyle