* Castaneda is one of three presidential front-runners
* His party denounces illegal wiretaps, demands probe
* Ultranationalist Humala says Castaneda “stained” (Adds quotes from candidate Humala)
By Caroline Stauffer and Teresa Cespedes
LIMA, Jan 4 (Reuters) - The campaign of Peruvian presidential front-runner Luis Castaneda was thrown into disarray on Tuesday by allegations that one of his running mates paid to be on his ticket.
Carmen Rosa Nunez de Acuna denied a report in the newspaper Peru 21 that she paid 500,000 soles ($178,000) — a relative fortune in the Andean country — to become one of Castaneda’s two picks to contest Peru’s two vice presidential posts.
Peru 21 said it obtained audiotapes of phone calls in which Nunez discussed making payments to Castaneda’s National Solidarity party. Beyond the “pay to play” implications, the transfers would have exceeded the limit of 216,000 soles that individual donors can legally give to political parties.
The scandal, the first serious one of the race, could hurt Castaneda just three months before election day on April 10.
Castaneda, a centrist former mayor of Lima, is nearly tied for first in opinion polls with former President Alejandro Toledo and Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori.
Like his two main rivals, Castaneda has endorsed mainstream policies that have turned mineral-rich Peru into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
Marco Parra, general secretary for the National Solidarity party, said the tapes were based on illegal wiretaps that were given to the media.
“We denounce this criminal act. The private life of Carmen Rosa Nunez was bugged. This tape was manipulated or edited,” he told reporters. “The dirty war has started.”
Parra demanded election officials launch an inquiry and bring those responsible to justice.
Castaneda, nicknamed the “mute” by local media for largely staying quiet in the campaign, has not commented on the allegations against his running mate, whose family became wealthy running private universities in northern Peru.
“Castaneda picked my wife for her money,” Nunez’s estranged husband, Cesar Acuna, told local media.
Acuna is mayor of Trujillo, Peru’s third-largest city, and is backing the presidential bid of Pedro Pablo Kuczynksi, a respected technocrat who has served as prime minister and finance minister but is trailing in polls.
Nunez said her husband needed “psychological help.”
Left-wing ultranationalist Ollanta Humala, who scared investors when he nearly won the 2006 presidential race and is now a distant fourth in polls, said Castaneda’s candidacy was damaged by the scandal.
“This stains the candidate and it stains politics,” Humala said.
Castaneda was highly popular as Lima’s mayor until he stepped down a few months ago to run for president. But he has been dogged by allegations of kickbacks on public works projects, which he denies. ($1 = 2.8 soles) (Reporting by Caroline Stauffer and Teresa Cespedes; Writing by Terry Wade; Editing by John O’Callaghan)