ROME (Reuters) - An Italian junior minister from the right-wing League party resigned on Thursday after being found guilty of embezzlement, defusing a potential flashpoint for the fractious coalition government.
A Genoa court sentenced Deputy Transport Minister Edoardo Rixi to three years and five months in jail over fraudulent expenses claims when he was a local councillor in the north-western Liguria region from 2010-2012.
Rixi denied all wrongdoing but said he had handed his resignation to party leader Matteo Salvini to avoid problems for the government. He will not actually go to prison, pending appeal.
Several League officials had rejected calls from the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, its coalition partner, for Rixi to step down if convicted, setting the scene for another clash between the quarrelsome ruling parties.
Rixi’s decision enables the parties to push ahead following a campaign for European parliamentary elections which had seen them competing for votes and constantly attacking each other.
“I accept his resignation only to protect him and the activity of the government from senseless attacks and polemics,” Salvini said in a statement.
He said he remained convinced of Rixi’s honesty and named him as the League’s spokesman for transport and infrastructure — a party rather than government position.
In a similar case in April, another League junior transport minister, Armando Siri was put under investigation for corruption but Salvini defied 5-Star’s calls for him to quit for weeks, before finally backing down. Siri denies wrongdoing.
5-Star makes fighting corruption its trademark and cannot afford to be seen compromising on its principles following a bruising defeat in the European vote, when it was trounced by the League and fell to third place behind the centre left.
Some commentators have speculated that Salvini might try to capitalise on his popularity by ditching 5-Star and seeking fresh elections at the head of a conservative bloc, but his handling of the Rixi case suggests he is in no hurry.
He said he had received Rixi’s resignation letter long before Thursday’s sentence, to be effective if he was convicted.
Salvini has been behaving since the European election as if he were already prime minister, promising swingeing tax cuts and calling for changes to European Union budget rules.
The fact Rixi first handed his resignation to Salvini, rather than to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, flouts the unusual procedure by which resignations of ministers must be accepted or rejected by the premier, not party chiefs.
Conte, a former academic who is not from either ruling party but is close to 5-Star, later said he had also received and accepted the resignation.
Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Gavin Jones and Alison Williams