ROME (Reuters) - Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement came under fire from opponents on Tuesday following media reports that some of its parliamentarians had broken party rules obliging them to give half their salaries to a fund to help small businesses.
The 5-Star news came amid a fierce battle for votes ahead of the March 4 national election. The movement is the most popular party going into the vote, polls show, but is trailing a coalition of right-wing parties.
Five-Star believes the salaries of Italy's parliamentarians are too high and requires its own members to deposit 50 percent of their monthly pay into a micro-fund.
Party leader Luigi Di Maio launched an investigation and vowed to "kick out the rotten apples" in the movement, which has staked its political fortune on being squeaky clean and un-corruptible compared with traditional parties.
"We gave back 23 million euros (£20.5 million), while the others pocketed every cent," Di Maio said. Over the past five years, Di Maio said he had personally relinquished about 370,000 euros of pay or benefits.
According to the reports, which dominated Italian media on Tuesday, as many as 10 of the movement's parliamentarians failed to hand over amounts totalling more than 1 million euros.
One senator suspended his 5-Star membership in response to the investigative report, which was carried out by an Italian television channel owned by right-wing political rival Silvio Berlusconi.
But Barbara Lezzi, a prominent 5-Star senator, denied the accusations made by the TV show. "I have paid everything," she told the newspaper Corriere della Sera on Tuesday. "When I saw that programme, I was shocked. It devastated me."
She said two 5-Star politicians had admitted to not paying enough but had later made up their contributions.
Matteo Renzi, leader of the ruling centre-left Democratic Party, accused Di Maio of overseeing a movement of "scroungers and fraudsters" and urged Italians not to vote for them next month.
The 5-Star Movement is set to win 27 to 28 percent of the votes, current polls show, compared with 22 to 23 percent for the ruling Democratic Party.
But a conservative alliance of Berlusconi's Forza Italia and its right-wing allies - the League and Brothers of Italy - would collect 36 to 37 percent of the vote if it were held today. While the centre-right bloc is expected to win the most seats, it still looks as if it will fall short of an absolute majority.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella and Steve Scherer, editing by Larry King)