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Aide’s Paramour Ready To Spill Beans About Bribes Stories Of Payoffs Among Italy’s Elite Could Derail Berlusconi’s Comeback

Recordings from a bugged ashtray. Confessions of a casino-loving socialite. Italy’s latest scandal is steamrolling through some of its most privileged quarters, and nobody knows where it will lead.

The investigation of bribes-for-favors in the courts has pried back the curtain a bit on the elite cliques who cut their business deals in Milan, steer the political machines in Rome and escape from it all on their yachts off Sardinia’s Emerald Coast.

It could also deal a blow to media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, the former premier struggling to stage a political comeback in next month’s elections.

Berlusconi had claimed one of his top political aides could prove that he had nothing to do with scandal. But the aide, Vittorio Dotti, replied: “I know nothing. … You do it.”

It’s been run-for-cover since a top Rome judge was arrested Tuesday. The next day, Dotti’s love interest, an antique store owner known for all-night gambling benders, started telling the press what she had been telling prosecutors since summer 1995.

“It’s nothing personal,” said Stefania Ariosto, whom prosecutors had given the code name “Omega.” “But you reach a point where you have to do something radical to make a change.”

The scandal centers around allegations that a judge took bribes in exchange for not indicting people in the late 1980s.

In the gallery of Italian corruption allegations over the past few years, the case is big, but not epic. Other kickback cases have led to suicides, resignations and three in-absentia convictions of a former premier who has fled to Tunisia.

In the latest case, investigators fit a tiny microphone in an ashtray at a bar frequented by the judge and other prominent legal figures. Authorities claim to have picked up references to payoffs in the conversations before the bug was discovered in January. Ariosto filled in details about how the money allegedly changed hands, prosecutors say.

At least four other judges also may be under investigation, the ANSA news agency reported Friday.

What makes the case potentially explosive is the direction in which it’s burrowing: Deep into Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. Prosecutors are investigating whether payoffs were made by a go-between for Sen. Cesare Previti, who was Berlusconi’s defense minister and is a close associate. Some Italian media have speculated the prosecutors are bearing down on the tycoon himself.

Even if Berlusconi stays clear of the probe, his party could be further bruised heading toward the April 21 elections. Berlusconi is already on trial for allegedly bribing tax inspectors, and some allies are threatening to break ranks with a Berlusconi-led coalition.

Berlusconi has long claimed he is the target of a political vendetta by Milan prosecutors. “Some magistrates are using their robes for unilateral attacks on me,” Berlusconi said Thursday.

For Milan’s anti-corruption prosecutors, it’s show time again.

After more than four years of investigations that have implicated nearly 3,000 people, Italians were wondering whether they had run out of steam.

Ariosto’s stories - dozens of pages of testimony - handed the prosecutors a possible full-course scandal to digest.

She has declined to give details of her testimony in public, but hints it is razor-sharp. “I saw money change hands,” she said. “I saw it all.”

Her revelations made her some enemies, she claimed. She was given a police escort. Death threats were called in to her cellular phone. Two days before Christmas, she said she received a package containing a small goat with its throat cut.

“Blood was everywhere,” she said.

Ariosto is now an outcast from the inner circle - the elite group of dealmakers, bankers and political bosses who essentially run the country. Her ticket in was Dotti, and she became well-known on the red-carpet circuit: dinner parties at Berlusconi’s villa, opening nights at Milan’s La Scala opera house.