By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's Senate on Wednesday rejected a no-confidence motion against the sports minister - an ally of ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi - who is under investigation on suspicion of having revealed court secrets.
The Senate voted 161 to 52 to defeat the motion against Sports Minister Luca Lotti. Several parties, including a group that split from the ruling party last month, left the assembly without voting.
Though the result is a relief for Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who took over from Renzi in December, it shows his government has a narrow majority in the upper house, where 158 votes are needed for a majority.
The opposition 5-Star Movement brought the motion against Lotti, one of Renzi's closest advisers, as the former premier campaigns to win back control of the ruling Democratic Party (PD) in a primary vote on April 30.
The investigation into the possibility of influence peddling in assigning a public contract also has taken aim at Renzi's father, Tiziano. Both Lotti and Tiziano Renzi deny any wrongdoing.
"You are accomplices to a classic Italian story, of wads of money and bribes," 5-Star Senator Paola Taverna said to PD lawmakers. "We have to explain to Italians that they have been taken hostage."
Speaking in his own defense, the 34-year-old Lotti said he had been the victim of a media witch hunt.
"This presumed disclosure never happened," Lotti said of the allegation that he revealed the ongoing criminal investigation to a state administrator who was under court surveillance.
Italian newspapers earlier this month published transcripts of the administrator's testimony to prosecutors, in which he said he had removed hidden microphones from his office after being tipped off by Lotti.
The motion of no confidence "is only a political attack on a lawmaker close to Renzi," Luigi Zanda, the PD's Senate leader, said. "A courtroom is the only place for justice to be served."
Renzi stepped down in December when he lost a referendum over his flagship Constitutional changes. Then he quit as PD leader to set in motion a primary in which he is standing to renew his mandate as secretary before a national election, which is expected early next year.
Renzi's comeback bid, which polls now show he is likely to win, ended up splitting his party, with a handful of PD dissidents quitting and forming their own parliamentary group.
The new party, called the Democratic and Progressive Movement (MDP), which counts some 14 Senators, called for Gentiloni to suspend Lotti, but its members left the assembly without casting a vote.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer, editing by Larry King)