Reuters International

Mayor of Parma Federico Pizzarotti, looks on during an interview with Reuters at his office in downtown Parma, northern Italy March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

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By Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement on Friday suspended the mayor of Parma, its most prominent local leader, after he was placed under investigation for abuse of office.

Federico Pizzarotti, who has run the largest city under 5-Star's control since a shock election victory in 2012, said this week he was being investigated in connection with his appointment of the head of the city's opera house.

Pizzarotti was the second 5-Star mayor in a week to reveal he had been caught up in a legal probe, an embarrassment for a party that has based its appeal on a squeaky-clean image that it said marked it out from the "corrupt" mainstream parties.

5-Star, Italy's second largest party, said it was not suspending Pizzarotti because of the investigation in itself, but because he had kept it secret "for months" and failed to provide information when the movement asked him for it.

"Transparency is the first duty," 5-Star founder Beppe Grillo wrote on his blog.

Pizzarotti has 10 days to provide the movement with a satisfactory justification for his conduct or be expelled altogether.

On Saturday Filippo Nogarin, mayor of the Tuscan city of Livorno, said he was under investigation for fraudulent bankruptcy in connection with the city rubbish collection company. Both Pizzarotti and Nogarin deny any wrongdoing.

The investigations come at a delicate time for 5-Star ahead of mayoral elections next month in Italy's largest cities, where it hopes to make major gains. According to opinion polls its candidate leads the field in the capital Rome.

A national survey released by Index Research pollsters this week suggested 5-Star had overtaken Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) as the most popular force in Italy..

However, most polls still give the PD a slim lead, which has narrowed steadily over the last year.

Pizzarotti, 42, has often been seen as a maverick, having clashed with 5-Star's national leaders on several occasions. Soon after taking office he was widely criticised within the movement for backtracking on an election campaign promise to close down Parma's trash incinerator.

Nogarin, considered a more orthodox figure who is closer to 5-Star's 5-member national directorate, has not been suspended, but has said he is ready to resign as mayor if the investigation shows wrongdoing.

(Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Andrew Roche)

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