MILAN'S FASHION ROW EDGY AS BRIBE PROBE GROWS ON SHOWS' EVE

MILAN--Nerves were stretched to the limit in the fashion community here Monday as eight or nine more designer firms were expected to come under scrutiny by magistrates in the rapidly spreading bribery scandal.
As reported, the investigation into payoffs to corrupt officials of the Guardia di Finanza--Italy's tax police--has already implicated five fashion houses: Versace, Krizia, Armani, Basile and Buccellati.
In the latest development,
Gianfranco Ferre confessed to the magistrates that his fashion house paid a bribe of $192,000 at current exchange rates (300 million lire) to tax officials, his lawyer confirmed Monday.
Ferre had declined to comment on his interrogation, which took place over the weekend.
Meanwhile, jailed Basile chairman Luigi (Gigi) Monti appeared to be on the verge of being released Monday night after testifying to investigating magistrates earlier in the day that he knew his firm had paid off a tax official in the amount of $254,000 (400 million lire) only after the fact.
According to his lawyer, Monti denied knowing details of the payment, which was made by former Basile managing director Nicola Di Luccio.
The judges have said they want to move rapidly through the billowing caseload of this investigation. Charges following the interrogations of Giorgio Armani, Krizia's Mariuccia Mandelli, Santo Versace, Ferré, Basile executives and jeweler Gianmaria Buccellati could be come shortly, according to defense lawyers.
However, given the cooperation of the designers, the lawyers say it is unlikely they will have to serve any jail time as a result. The designers have testified that they felt the bribes were extorted from them by the tax men.
Courthouse sources said more of fashion's leading players could be entering the cavernous halls of Milan's gloomy tribunal this week, just days before their latest creations go down the runways under the spotlight of the world's fashion press during the designer collection presentations, which start here Saturday.
Sources said the investigation could spread to Florence and Rome, as the judges are reportedly reviewing audits carried out by the elite SECIT corps of tax controllers, which answers directly to the Finance Ministry, for the period between 1989 and 1991.
Ferré's lawyer, Nicola Bonuomo, said Ferré admitted to investigating magistrates over the weekend that his design house paid a bribe to Guardia officials during an audit in 1990.
Bonuomo said the payment was made by one of Ferré's managers on the firm's behalf, but added that he couldn't discuss other details of the designer's deposition due to secrecy laws.
"Mr. Ferré has never handled these administrative matters, but he discovered this payment was made by his staff," said Bonuomo.
Meanwhile, Monti's lawyer, Raffaelle Di Palma, said he expected his client to be released from jail late Monday or Tuesday after he told the judges Monday morning he had been made aware of a payoff.
"He clarified his position," Di Palma said. "He never participated in this situation, he never knew how much the payment was or how it was handled. He came to know about it later, and the judge believed him."
Leading defense lawyers in Milan said it was difficult to determine what will happen next in the fashion investigation or what the implications of the interrogations will be.
"We will have to wait and see until the investigation is finished," said Ferré lawyer Bonuomo, who said that despite the publicity, he didn't think the inquiry will hamper day-to-day business at the design houses.
Versace lawyer Alberto Moro Visconti said, "This is an extremely delicate investigation, because it involves an arm of the military police." The Guardia di Finanza is a paramilitary organization.
When asked if he felt the fashion sector had been singled out, he said he didn't think the timing of the interrogations--just days before the designer shows--was intentional. Conspiracy theorists here have sent up cries of alarm over the timing, accusing the judges of going forward with the depositions just when the designers are most focused on bringing off strong presentations to world buyers and press.
"I don't think the judges even know when the fashion shows are in Milan," said Visconti. "Still, it's a highly visible industry, and news of the interrogations creates a splash. News that Versace has been questioned is sexier than if he were a pastry maker."

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