A prostitution ring linked to alleged corruption in the awarding of public works contracts for the G8 summit in Italy involved as many as 350 women, investigating magistrates have revealed.
The apparent scale of the "sex for favours" affair, which was previously said to involve three or four women, has added a further blow to the centre-Right Government of Silvio Berlusconi.
Investigators said that they had intercepted telephone calls and uncovered other evidence which proved that the women involved in the G8 corruption investigation, had been paid about 700 euros for encounters at private parties and apartments across Italy, with some charging 5,000 euros.
The call girls, who were Russians, Ukrainians, Venezuelans, Brazilians and Cubans as well as Italians, were allegedly supplied to public works officials by businessmen bidding for lucrative contracts linked to the G8 summit, including allegedly Diego Anemone, a Rome building contractor, who is under arrest on suspicion of corruption.
Berlusconi initially planned the G8 summit for Sardinia, where a summit complex was erected at a cost of 600 million euros, but he later moved the venue to L'Aquila to express solidarity with the victims of the Abruzzo earthquake last April, at a further cost of 327 million euros.
The planning was entrusted to Guido Bertolaso, head of the Civil Protection Agency and the Prime Minister's right-hand man, who was placed under investigation last month after magistrates said tapped phone conversations suggested that he had received sexual favours disguised as massages at a Rome health and sports centre.
Bertolaso has vigorously denied this, saying that he only had physiotherapy for a bad back.
Last weekend Bertolaso, who became a national hero over the Abruzzo earthquake rescue effort and earlier oversaw crowd control for John Paul II's funeral in 2005, was granted an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who thanked him for his public service.
In addition to Anemone, Angelo Balducci, the former head of public works, and two other public officials are under arrest. All four deny any wrongdoing, and no charges have yet been laid against them.
Last week Thomas Chinedu Ehiem, a 40-year-old Nigerian member of a Vatican choir, was sacked after graphic phone conversations tapped during the G8 investigation suggested that he had arranged male prostitutes for Balducci, who has close ties to the Vatican and is a papal usher, or "Gentleman of His Holiness".
Franco Coppi, Balducci's lawyer, said that the allegations were "shameful".
"We are talking about things that are personal and private," Times Online quoted Coppi as saying.
Ehiem told Panorama magazine that he had provided Balducci with men ranging from rugby players to actors and seminarians.
Berlusconi's allies pushed a controversial measure through Parliament on March 11 that shields him for the next year and a half from prosecution in two continuing trials.
In one he is charged with having given David Mills, his former British tax lawyer and estranged husband of Tessa Jowell, the Olympics Minister, a bribe to lie for him in court in corruption cases in the 1990s.
In the second, his Mediaset television company is accused of tax fraud over the purchase of Hollywood film rights. He denies both allegations.