MILAN (Reuters) - Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has enlisted the head of Italy's new anti-bribery authority to salvage preparations for Milan's Expo 2015 world fair after a corruption scandal that risks disrupting the lucrative event.
Seven former lawmakers, managers and public officials were arrested last week over alleged attempts to influence public tenders for the fair, which Italy hopes will attract 20 million visitors and help bolster a still feeble economic recovery.
The center-left leader, visiting the fair's site in a show of support after the arrests, said former anti-mafia magistrate Raffaele Cantone would be charged with ensuring the smooth running of the Expo's works.
He gave no details of how the new task force would operate.
The drafting of Cantone, whose anti-corruption authority was only set up in March, underlines Rome's commitment to the Expo, which will feature 60 pavilions built by over 140 participating countries around the main exhibition theme of nutrition.
Thousands of events and cultural activities will also take place at the site of Expo 2015, which will run for six months from next May and could generate around 10 billion euros. The exhibition takes place every five years.
The corruption probe around Expo 2015 has rekindled memories of the "Bribesville" scandals that toppled Italy's old party system in the 1990s and risks tainting the country's image abroad just as it is slowly emerging from an economic crisis.
Among those arrested are the event's public procurement manager and two ex-lawmakers jailed during "Bribesville".
Beppe Grillo, a comedian-turned-politician who leads the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement, said the appointment of Cantone was too little too late as the vast majority of the public tenders for the fair have already been handed out.
"EXPO is a conspiracy to launder public money," Grillo told a news conference in Milan. "The appointment of Cantone comes too late. Controls had to be put in place earlier."
The 5-Star Movement has long opposed the Expo 2015 project, saying it will not deliver the economic returns it promises.
However, Renzi insisted Italy must press ahead with Expo 2015, for which the state has already earmarked 1.3 billion euros of funds in new infrastructure and services.
"We need to stop the thieves, not the public works," he said. "We are absolutely convinced that Expo 2015 is an amazing opportunity for Italy."
Italy has long struggled to control rampant corruption and was ranked 69 out of 177 countries in Transparency International's index of world corruption last year, below countries including Montenegro, Ghana and Cuba.
Additional reporting by Ilaria Polleschi in Milan,; Editing by Tom Heneghan