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EUROPE : Investigator Rips Into Designers at High Point of Fashion Season : Italy: The magistrate spearheading the probe of a massive bribery scandal turns his attention to well-known couturiers.


ROME — Italy's most popular judge has come into fashion: Investigating magistrate Antonio Di Pietro brings sartorial taste--including one smashing sports jacket--but an awful sense of timing, in the view of the country's famous designers.

Di Pietro, vortex of debate on how to resolve a national corruption scandal without permanently scarring Italy's business community, is the reason more than hemlines are under scrutiny this weekend as clothes-watchers gather in Milan for the inaugural of the fashion world's annual ready-to-wear shows.

What women will be wearing next spring and summer is up to them. But it is Di Pietro who will decide if some designers are showing prison stripes by then.

As ever, cameras will be riveted on skirt lengths of models sashaying the catwalks during the Milan extravaganza lasting from today through Thursday; Di Pietro's more interested in hoodwinks and bribes.

"He's very simpatico, elegant even, in his gray cashmere jacket," said Gianfranco Ferre after being questioned by the judge who has spearheaded an almost three-year crusade against bribery and corruption. The investigation has focused on whether businesses richly and routinely paid off politicians and government officials in exchange for public contracts.

Other pillars of a multibillion-dollar industry who have been to see Di Pietro when they would rather have been making final tucks in their creations include: Giorgio Armani; Santo Versace, brother and head of Gianni Versace's fashion empire; Krizia, and jeweler Gianmaria Buccellati.

They have told similar stories--of yielding to official corruption by paying bribes that amounted to extortion.

Krizia, who shows her new line Monday "with a certain air of austerity," told the judge this week that she had paid $260,000 to tax inspectors under guise of a consultant's fee in 1990. In exchange, inspectors did not find irregularities in company books, which she says were clean anyway.

"I had to pay. It was the only way to stay free of the threat of being closed down or paralyzed," Krizia, whose real name is Mariuccia Mandelli, told Italian reporters.

Di Pietro, the most respected figure in Italian public life, is the father of an investigation into a scandal called Tangentopoli (Bribesville) that has implicated an ever-growing list of prominent officials and business leaders--more than 3,000 so far, including former Cabinet ministers and captains of industry.

Popular disgust at the scandal triggered an electoral revolt that broke Establishment parties after nearly half a century in power and brought political rookie Silvio Berlusconi to the prime minister's office.

By now, it is clear that corruption reached into every corner of the country and virtually every industry. Magistrates say they have evidence against crooked tax police in more than 200 cases, and businessmen are also falling in a steady stream: A textile manufacturer and a trader known as "the rice king" ran afoul of Milan judges this week.

"In a little while they'll even be investigating the saints," a disgusted Gianni Versace told reporters in Berlin.

Italy is paying a huge cost for the scandal--from lost taxes to a justice system overwhelmed by corruption cases to unsigned contracts and stagnant construction among companies fearful that skeptical judges will later vet their every move.

With 40,000 people jamming Milan this week for the shows, the fashion world's encounter with justice may not have tangible impact. But on the nervous eve of a new season, it is at the least unsettling to high-fashion wizards whose genius generates both national prestige and billions in export earnings.

Di Pietro has been arguing publicly that investigations must be brought to a close. To speed an end, he suggests greater transparency in the letting of government contracts and American-style plea-bargaining and immunity for those who confess and testify.

The proposal has found greater echo in public opinion than in official circles, where there are complaints that as a magistrate Di Pietro has no business doing politicians' work.

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