San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Panama leader denies Italy bribery accusations

PANAMA CITY – Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli denied his government received bribes from a fugitive linked to a sex and corruption case involving former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Newspaper editor Valter Lavitola, arrested in Naples, Italy, this week upon his arrival from Argentina, is under investigation for allegedly having bribed Panama officials, Italy’s Corriere della Sera reported.

Lavitola, who was arrested in connection with a ring accused of supplying prostitutes to Berlusconi, allegedly handed members of the Panamanian government suitcases full of cash to secure construction contracts for third parties.

Martinelli adamantly denied the accusations, calling them a “journalistic invention aimed at tarnishing my image and the image of Panama,” during a press conference late Thursday.

“I am sure this soap opera will end soon, and at the end of soap operas, good always wins out and the truth is known,” he said.

Lavitola allegedly took part in a blackmail plot against Berlusconi, and police had issued a warrant for his arrest in September last year.

Eight people, including businessman Giampaolo Tarantini and German starlet Sabina Began, were charged in September for allegedly supplying Berlusconi with prostitutes in the hope of gaining jobs, contracts or favors in exchange.

Tarantini is accused of then blackmailing the billionaire premier to the tune of $1 million.

Lavitola is suspected of having been the middleman for these payments, according to prosecutors.

He had reportedly called Berlusconi from South America asking whether he should return and “clear everything up” but was told to stay put until the scandal had blown over, according to wiretaps published in the Italian media.

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