ROME (Reuters) - Italian police said they arrested 44 people on Thursday suspected of being part of a network of corrupt politicians and business people in Rome accused of rigging public contracts to manage migrant reception centers.
The arrests follow the discovery of a vast system of corruption in the Rome city government last year -- a case dubbed "Mafia Capital" which prompted the city hall to ask the national anti-corruption authority to investigate a list of suspect public contracts.
Rome police said search warrants were also issued against another 21 people in the area around Rome, L'Aquila in central Italy and Catania and Enna in Sicily.
They said the investigation had uncovered a widespread system designed to allow a cartel of companies to win lucrative public contracts to manage migrant reception centers.
The centers, often run on contract by cooperative social organizations, have proved a rich source of income for unscrupulous operators as the Mediterranean migrant boat crisis has intensified, leaving authorities struggling to deal with the tens of thousands of arrivals.
"We need to stop the boat departures and stop the public tenders immediately," Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant Northern League party said following the latest arrests.
The case has underlined the persistent problem of political corruption in Italy, which ranked 69 out of 177 countries in the latest index by Transparency International, the global anti-corruption group.
Police said "Mafia Capital" was based around a network running back over many years in Rome involving local politicians, business people and criminals linked to violent neo-fascist groups active in the 1970s and 1980s.
They said the cartel had been able to secure "significant economic benefits" by fixing public contracts to manage migrant reception centers and excluding rival bidders.
In addition to the "Mafia Capital" case last year, there were also high profile scandals around the award of public contracts for the Milan Expo and the Venice flood barrier corporation.
Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Andrew Heavens