Court backs fraud raid on CMM

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The Independent Online
The Serious Fraud Office was right to raid a London business office as part of international bribery and corruption investigations against former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, the High Court ruled yesterday.

Fininvest, the business empire of the former prime minister and media magnate, had asked two judges to declare that the raid set in motion by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, in April this year was illegal.

But yesterday Lord Justice Simon Brown and Mr Justice Gage ruled that the SFO had the right to seize 15 bundles of documents from the London office of CMM Corporate Services, a corporate services company which set up shelf companies for Fininvest.

Relevant parts of these documents can now be sent to the Italian authorities which allege that Mr Berlusconi was involved in a pounds 51m fraud, using money from Fininvest to bribe tax inspectors and politicians.

The ruling will boost flagging morale at the SFO, which recently lost its attempt to launch a second trial of Kevin Maxwell. It will also strengthen the SFO's position against critics who complain that its powers to seize documents, particularly on behalf of foreign investigators, are too draconian.

A spokesman for the SFO said: "The SFO's fight against fraud on an international level has been strengthened by this welcome judgment. We look forward to the speedy transfer of the documents to Milan so that the Italian fraud investigators can get on with their jobs."

Mr Berlusconi, a former president of Fininvest and its principal shareholder, is under investigation for the bribery allegations and for making illicit donations to Bettino Craxi, another former Italian prime minister.

Lord Justice Brown said the Home Secretary received a request in April this year from the public prosecutor in Milan for help in obtaining documents from CMM, a company set up by David Mills, a London lawyer and brother- in-law of Mrs Barbara Mills, the director of public prosecutions. There is no suggestion Mr Mills is under suspicion.

All the documents were examined by the Italian authorities in London and the ones they wanted were sent to the Home Secretary. But none was transmitted to Italy because of the legal challenge.