ROME (AP) — The Italian premier’s office on Sunday distanced itself from a lobbyist who is under investigation for allegedly seeking Russian money for Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s pro-Moscow League party, saying the man attended a recent dinner for visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin only because a Salvini adviser intervened on his behalf.
Premier Giuseppe Conte’s office issued the statement after it said it was flooded with requests for information about the presence of Gianluca Savoini at a dinner the Italian leader hosted for Putin on July 4 at a Villa Madama, an exclusive hilltop government palazzo designed by Renaissance artist Raphael in the 16th century.
Savoini has been under investigation in Italy for allegedly seeking millions of dollars in financing for the League since the Italian newsweekly L’Espresso reported that he had discussed the plan with Russian officials in Moscow last year, a few months after the League became a partner in Conte’s populist government.
“Conte personally doesn’t know Mr. Savoini,” the statement said, adding that those invited to the dinner included all those who participated in an Italian-Russian dialogue forum held in Rome a few hours earlier at the Italian foreign ministry.
Conte’s office said it looked into how Savoini wound up at the dinner and determined that his involvement in the forum was arranged by Claudio D’Amico, an adviser to Salvini and that the dinner invitation “was an automatic consequence of his participation in the forum.”
An open admirer of Putin, Salvini for years has advocated for the end of European Union sanctions on Russia, imposed for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. He says the sanctions hurt Italian businessmen.
Salvini, who also serves as interior minister, has insisted that neither he nor his right-wing party has ever taken “a ruble” from Russians.
The League is the junior partner in Conte’s year-old coalition government. Salvini’s rival deputy premier, 5-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio, pressed Sunday for a parliamentary inquiry on political party financing.
Opposition lawmakers are clamoring for Salvini’s resignation.
Savoini lobbies for closer Italian-Russian ties through an association based in Lombardy, the affluent northern Italian region which is a League stronghold.