ROME Italy's Northern League party suffered another blow to its prestige on Monday when the son of its iconic founder became the latest victim of a growing scandal over misuse of party funds.
Renzo Bossi, 24, resigned as a regional counsellor of the Lombardy regional government, four days after his father Umberto, 70, stepped down as national party leader.
Both resignations came in the wake of an investigation by Milan magistrates over misuse of funds the party received from the state for electoral campaigns.
Renzo Bossi, who was seen as an eventual heir apparent to lead the party that once held a pivotal position in Italian politics, was one of the beneficiaries of a party slush fund managed by the party's former treasurer, according to media reports.
Magistrates suspect Renzo Bossi's education at a private university in Britain was paid for by party funds and that he was also given use of two party cars for private use.
Prosecutors have already placed the party's treasurer, Francesco Belsito, and two other officials, under formal investigation.
Belsito, who has also resigned, is accused of channelling party funds to pay for the personal expenses of the Bossi family, including travel, dinners, education fees, hotel accommodation, expensive cars, and improvements to the Bossi house.
While both Umberto Bossi and Renzo are not yet being formally investigated, Renzo Bossi said it was "opportune" for him to leave his post because the party was going through a "difficult moment".
Some rank-and-file party members had planned to demand Renzo Bossi's expulsion from the League at a meeting later this month, saying he was the beneficiary of nepotism.
The League, now part of the parliamentary opposition to Prime Mario Monti's technocrat government, was once a key member of the centre-right coalitions of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. No viable centre-right government in Italy could be formed without it.
Another prominent League member who has been caught up in the scandal is Rosy Mauro, a vice-president of the Senate.
Several centre-left parties have demanded that she resign from the Senate because magistrates suspect that some of the party funds were re-directed to her personal use, such as medical and educational expenses.
The scandal has shaken the foundations of the anti-immigrant party, which once advocated that Italy's wealthy northern regions secede from the rest of country because the national government in Rome could not be trusted with public money.
A League battle cry "Roma Ladrona," (Rome the big thief) was for more than two decades wielded to symbolise the party's charge that the central government in the Italian capital was squandering the tax revenues from the industrious north.
Since the scandal broke last week, posters have been plastered around Rome reading "Lega Ladrona" (the League is the big thief).
(Reporting By Philip Pullella Editing by Maria Golovnina)