Reuters International

Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi delivers a speech during a welcome ceremony at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

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By Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - A warning by one of Italy's most prominent judges over what he said were unprecedented levels of corruption among politicians has angered Matteo Renzi's government and unleashed a political storm over the role of the judiciary.

Piercamillo Davigo, a supreme court judge, made his name 24 years ago as one of the pool of Milan prosecutors that led the "Clean Hands" corruption investigation that swept away an entire political class.

In an interview in Corriere della Sera daily on Friday Davigo, who heads Italy's national association of magistrates, said political corruption is now worse than it was in 1992 and criticised Renzi's government for failing to tackle it.

"The politicians haven't stopped stealing, they've stopped being ashamed of it," he said. "Now they blatantly claim a right to do what they used to do secretly."

Italy came 61st in Transparency International's 2015 corruption perceptions index, second to last among the 28 European Union countries above only Bulgaria. It slipped below Greece and Romania compared with the year before.

Davigo said magistrates' powers to tackle corruption and tax evasion had been weakened by lenient legislation brought in by former centre-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and also by centre-left leaders, including Renzi.

Renzi made no comment, but on Saturday Davigo was attacked by the premier's allies in his Democratic Party (PD) and other parties in the ruling coalition. He was applauded by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and right-wing Northern League.

PD President Matteo Orfini said people with institutional responsibilities "shouldn't talk as if they were in a bar".

The furore comes at an awkward time for Renzi, whose industry minister resigned last month over an influence-peddling scandal. Renzi says he has taken important steps to fight corruption, including raising prison sentences.

Defending his government over the influence peddling affair in parliament this month, he said an over-zealous judiciary had been guilty of "barbaric episodes" in the past 20 years.

Renzi offered no examples, but many commentators noted the similarity of his words with those of Berlusconi, who was found guilty of tax fraud in 2013 and has repeatedly clashed with the judiciary during his 22-year political career.

Davigo's comments also divided his fellow magistrates. Giovanni Legnini, the deputy-president of the magistrates' governing body, said they "risk a conflict (with politicians) which the judiciary and the country does not need".

Nicola Gratteri, a prominent anti-mafia prosecutor, agreed with Davigo that political corruption had reached new lows.

"Twenty years ago it was local mafia bosses who went to politicians asking for favours, but now it's the politicians who go to the houses of the mafia bosses asking for votes in exchange for public contracts," he said.

The 5-Star Movement's founder Beppe Grillo, said Davigo's words were "shared by all honest citizens".

"It's clear that Davigo isn't against the government, he's against corrupt politicians. If the two things coincide then it isn't Davigo's fault," he added.

(Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Alison Williams)

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