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Pressure mounts on Italy's minister for equal opportunities to resign over tax troubles

Italy's equal opportunities minister, a German-born, eight-time Olympic kayaker, is facing pressure to resign over tax troubles in a case with both racist and sexist overtones.

The anti-immigrant Northern League party is leading the charge against Josefa Idem, with one party official, Mario Borghezio, calling her a "whore." Another Northern League official recently called for another immigrant Cabinet member, Congolese-born Cecile Kyenge, to be raped — an indication of the level of political discourse these days as Italy's cross-party government tries to forge ahead with measures to boost Italy's ailing economy.

Idem has been a strong supporter of Kyenge, Italy's first black Cabinet minister, and they are two of the seven women in the government of Premier Enrico Letta. They are also both immigrants to Italy, a country without a long history of immigration.

But Idem has lost support, even from within the center-left, after admitting to irregularities in the tax payments on one of her residences. She has apologized, saying she trusted others to make sure the structures were built and registered correctly, and said the problems were being fixed.

Letta was meeting with Idem on Monday to discuss the matter. Initially, he had expressed full support in her and she refused to resign.

But the chorus of politicians calling for her resignation has grown, particularly as Italians are coping with a grueling recession and a crackdown by authorities on rampant tax evasion. Some estimates say as much as 20 percent of Italy's GDP is lost to tax evasion, and Idem's critics say a government minister must be a model for correctness.

The issue concerns a house-turned-gymnasium that Idem built in Ravenna near another house owned by her husband. By declaring the gym as her primary residence, while her husband declared the house as his, Idem was able to avoid paying certain housing taxes on the gym for four years. According to Italian press reports, there were also code violations in the renovation of the structure into a gym.

Idem, who retired after the London Olympics with a total of five medals over eight Games, says she will pay whatever penalty is owed, just as any other citizen would do.

"They have called me a thief and a whore. I'm not infallible but I'm honest and I won't let anyone doubt me," she told a news conference on Saturday in the government briefing room, her lawyer by her side. She said that in Germany, a minister wouldn't be forced to resign for such an oversight.

In fact, even in Italy such matters don't always result in resignations: Last year, then-Finance Minister Vittorio Grilli rebuffed demands by consumers group Adusbef to resign over questions about the purchase price he reported to the state about the value of his Rome apartment. He was the Italian state accountant at the time of the purchase. Grilli remained in place, and then-Premier Mario Monti expressed his support.

Idem has balked at the violent tone of the insults hurled at her, telling Corriere della Sera on Monday that the campaign is a "massacre" and a "lynching."

"In the span of one week I have gone from being valued as an esteemed person to a criminal," she said. "My image has been destroyed and this is unbearable."

Coming to her defense has been Kyenge, who tweeted that Borghezio's comments against her were "unacceptable."

Also defending her was Ivan Scalfarotto, vice president of Letta's Democratic Party, who noted that Idem's portfolio as equal opportunities minister may have exposed her to extra criticism.

"Defending women, gays and transsexuals has transformed Josefa Idem into the perfect target for those aiming to stop progress in civil rights in our country," he said.

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Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield