New probe of Italian premier opens

Prosecutors allege Berlusconi paid British lawyer at least $600,000 to lie on his behalf during two trials

December 30, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ROME --Italian prosecutors have opened a new investigation into Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, alleging that he ordered the payment of at least $600,000 in 1997 to a British lawyer to lie on his behalf at two trials.

The substance of the investigation, reported yesterday in the newspaper Corriere della Sera, was denied by Berlusconi's spokesman, Paola Bonaiuti, and his lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini. In strong terms, both wrote the investigation off as political maneuvering before the hotly contested Italian general elections in April.

"The electoral campaign has begun," Bonaiuti said in a statement, accusing Corriere della Sera and the Milan-based prosecutors of working together to undermine Berlusconi's re-election.

For years, Berlusconi has fended off a series of prosecutions, by deft legal work and, his critics allege, by fashioning laws designed to help him avoid jail. Despite that, the new investigation shows that prosecutors - whom Berlusconi accuses of being sympathetic to the center-left opposition - have not given up.

It also creates one more difficulty for Berlusconi, the nation's richest man, as he seeks a second term with opinion polls showing him trailing his opponent, Romano Prodi, a former prime minister.

The news came on a day when Berlusconi was patching up another wound in the credibility of Italy's leadership. His government nominated a new governor for the Bank of Italy, mired for months in a scandal over accusations that the former governor, Antonio Fazio, had favored an Italian suitor over a foreign one in a bank takeover.

The government named Mario Draghi, managing director for Goldman Sachs, whose name had been in wide circulation here since Fazio resigned last week and who has support both from the government and the opposition. His nomination must be confirmed by Italy's president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

In a front-page article on the new investigation, the newspaper Corriere della Sera alleged that Berlusconi and British lawyer David Mills were invited to appear before prosecutors in Milan on Dec. 3 to discuss the new investigation.

Under Italian law, the men were not obliged to appear, and neither did, according to the newspaper. Berlusconi's lawyer, Ghedini, who is a member of parliament for Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia, said the investigation was in its "preliminary phases and it did not appear to be anything for the defense's arguments."

Corriere reported, however, that calling witnesses such as Berlusconi and Mills indicated that the investigation was nearing an end. It said that prosecutors could decide in the next month whether to ask a judge to determine if there should be a trial.

Mills is married to Tessa Jowell, the British minister for culture, media and sport.

Corriere said prosecutors allege that at least $600,000 was authorized to be sent to Mills by the now-dead manager of Fininvest, Berlusconi's huge holding company, in 1997 for favorable testimony on two occasions. One was in November 1997, at a corruption trial in which Berlusconi had been charged with bribing tax officials; the other was in January 1998, in a trial in which Berlusconi was charged in a scheme to funnel $12 million to the party of former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi.

Berlusconi was convicted in both cases in January 1998, but was cleared on appeal in 2001 in the first case and the conviction was voided in the second because the statute of limitations had run out.

Mills, who has testified in three of Berlusconi's trials, is under investigation in Italy, with Berlusconi and 12 others, in another fraud case involving Mediaset, the Berlusconi family media group. He has denied any wrongdoing.

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