The contracts, signed by the government's coronavirus crisis commissioner Domenico Arcuri with three Chinese consortiums, were for the supply of more than 800 million face masks for 1.25 billion euros ($1.5 billion).
According to Italy's Guardia di Finanza, the financial police, a group of middlemen pocketed illegal commissions worth “tens of millions of euros”, paid by the Chinese side to make the deals happen.
The unnamed suspects are accused of influence peddling, trading in stolen goods and money laundering.
Police seized 70 million euros' worth of assets as part of the investigation, including real estate, financial and insurance holdings, company shares, and luxury items including jewellery, cars, motorbikes and a yacht.
The commissioner's office “does not appear interested in establishing its own relationship with Chinese suppliers … preferring to rely on improvised freelancers eager to speculate on the epidemic,” prosecutors wrote in the seizure notice, according to Italian media reports.
Arcuri's office said it had been the victim of the alleged scam and was considering legal action for compensation.