By  on September 22, 1994

MILAN -- Mariuccia Mandelli of Krizia has admitted to investigating magistrates here that she paid off officials of the Guardia di Finanza in exchange for a favorable tax audit of her company, her lawyer said Wednesday.

The bribe, which the lawyer said Mandelli felt pressured to pay, was a reported $260,000 (300 million lire) at current exchange rates, but neither Mandelli nor Krizia has been charged in the case, which is part of a major probe of corruption in the Guardia -- Italy's fiscal police.

Jeweler Gian Maria Buccellati has already been charged with corruption for paying a bribe of $64,000 (100 million lire) to the tax police, his lawyer, Giuseppe Pezzotta, confirmed Wednesday.

Buccellati confessed to the magistrates that he had made the payoff, Pezzotta said.

Courthouse sources said a senior political figure who had already been questioned by judges recently came back to court to admit he had also paid kickbacks on behalf of an Italian designer, although it could not be learned who the designer was.

"They don't want to release any names because they're afraid those involved will skip town," said one source.

Colonel Ugo Marchetti of the Guardia, who is heading the investigation with the magistrates, said he couldn't comment on whether other fashion companies are involved in the probe.

"There is a lot going on right now. It would be premature to comment, although perhaps in a few days things will be clearer," he said.

As reported, the magistrates are looking into company audits that took place between 1986 and 1993, seeking evidence that tax officials solicited bribes to overlook fiscal irregularities.

Santo Versace, chief executive of the Versace fashion house, was interrogated by the magistrates Monday, and the widening probe now has the rest of the fashion community here holding its breath in anticipation of who might be next.

Mandelli voluntarily approached the magistrates about 10 days ago when she heard that the investigation was about to target the fashion industry, according to Mario Scamoni, Krizia's lawyer.

"When Mrs. Mandelli heard that the magistrates had started reviewing cases involving the fashion sector, she decided to go to them because she had an episode to recount," said Scamoni, who noted that the designer met with magistrate Antonio Di Pietro."It was something that had always bothered her and that she wanted to put behind her," he added, explaining that Mandelli told the judges she had been pressured into paying off Guardia officials in exchange for a favorable audit.

"She felt she had been the victim of the situation, rather than paying to corrupt someone," he said. Although Scamoni said he wasn't at liberty to reveal details of Mandelli's deposition, which is bound by secrecy laws, he indirectly confirmed details that had been leaked to the Italian press.

According to Wednesday's Corriere della Sera, a Milan daily that had the most complete account of the case, the episode dates back to an audit of the Krizia books in 1990 and involves Carlo Capitanucci, a senior member of the elite SECIT corps within the fiscal police. Capitanucci was recently jailed in connection with the corruption probe.

When Mandelli protested against suggestions by tax officials that a payment of some $260,000 would help the audit go more smoothly, saying that the company wasn't able to make payments off the books, she was provided with two fake invoices made out by an off-shore shadow company based in Gibraltar, the Corriere reported.

The bills were paid to a foreign bank account, the paper added.

"This was often the way the system worked," confirmed Scamoni.

While the Italian papers had a field day with headlines about the judges rolling onto the runways and fashion designers parading in the corridors of the courts, fashion executives here were less than amused.

"The judges are doing their job, but it isn't very pleasant to have all this erupt just 10 days before the designer shows get started here," said Gianni Cigna, chairman of Laura Biagiotti.

"This isn't a fashion problem, it's a problem with the system," he continued. "This is a country that has too many tax laws and a fiscal burden that is the highest in Europe.

"We all knew that this was coming sooner or later, but if they are going to try to investigate every company in Italy, they'll never resolve anything. It is also going to be important to change the tax laws."

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