Italy's Berlusconi drops allies accused of mafia links
By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has dropped former allies accused of corruption and mafia association as election candidates, in a bid to shed the image of scandal that has dogged sections of his center-right party.
Late on Monday, Berlusconi's party secretary Angelino Alfano said Nicola Cosentino, a former junior economy minister whose power base is in the heartland of the Camorra or Naples mafia, would not return to parliament after the election.
Cosentino has denied any wrongdoing and party officials have said the decision was taken only to avoid the issue being exploited by electoral rivals.
"This choice does not imply a judgment that those involved are guilty," said Fabrizio Cicchitto, head of the PDL party group in the lower house of parliament.
"I continue to believe that Nicola Cosentino is innocent and has been the target of an extremely harsh campaign by media and judges," he said.
Cosentino, who was forced to resign from Berlusconi's last government in 2011 over an influence-peddling scandal, is under investigation for association with the Camorra in the Casal di Principe region near Naples.
Berlusconi, who is himself on trial over accusations of paying for sex with a minor as well as tax fraud, has been under heavy pressure to clean up his People of Freedom (PDL) party ahead of elections on February 24-25.
It is unclear what impact the decision will have on the vote but the Corriere della Sera daily said Berlusconi's office had seen projections which estimated it could add 2 percent to build on a strong recovery seen since the start of the year. Continued...