Berlusconi finds 'proof' he did not pay bribe to Mills

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Indy Politics

A "profoundly indignant" Silvio Berlusconi has revealed documents which he claims prove that the $500,000 (£280,000) he allegedly paid to David Mills actually came from the disgraced Neapolitan businessmen Diego Attanasio.

The Italian Prime Minister and Mr Mills are embroiled in a criminal case due to begin in June, in which Mr Berlusconi is accused of having paid the money to Mr Mills as a bribe to persuade him to hold back incriminating information when giving testimony.

Mr Mills, an international lawyer and the estranged husband of the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, was a prosecution witness in two trials in the late 1990s in which Mr Berlusconi was accused of using offshore accounts to bribe Italian politicians and make inflated profits on films bought in the United States for use by his television channels in Italy.

Yesterday, Mr Berlusconi said that in March, the Milan prosecutors had refused a request by his lawyers for extra time in which to obtain documents from the Bahamas. "So I had personally to activate defensive inquiries which should have been done by the prosecutors themselves," he said.

At a press conference in Rome, Mr Berlusconi produced 15 folders which he handed out to journalists. "These documents prove," he said, " that beyond any doubt the sum that came to the lawyer David Mills came from a third person, whom I have never known and who has has nothing to do with [his company] Fininvest. We're talking about the weapons dealer Diego Attanasio."

A source in the Milan prosecutor's office, who declined to be named, said: "Diego Attanasio has always denied paying Mills. The papers Mr Berlusconi says he has obtained, proving the provenance of the disputed sum, were requested from the British authorities by us six months ago but never arrived. How did Mr Berlusconi manage to accomplish in five days what the prosecutors were unable to do in six months?

"There are two possible explanations. One is he obtained the documents using means out of the ordinary. The other is that the documents are new or forgeries."

The Italian Premier's move appeared to corroborate Mr Mills's claim that the money came from Mr Attanasio. In an interview with Legal Business magazine this week, he said: "By sheer chance, the most extraordinary chance last night, I discovered a piece of clinching evidence that the money came from Diego [Attanasio]. It's virtually the final piece in the jigsaw".

Ms Jowell was dragged into the row after it emerged that she signed the mortgage deal that Mr Mills is alleged to have used to bring the money into Britain. [See Letters to the Editor, 11 April.]

Despite the fact the row almost cost his wife her job and led to them announcing their separation, Mr Mills told the magazine: "It's very exciting. It's like a thriller, all of this.''

He played down the significance of a letter he wrote to his accountant Bob Drennan two years ago. It has been seized on by the Italian authorities as clear evidence the bribe was paid, but Mr Mills insisted that only part of it was true.

"The letter is more like a novel. There are a lot of facts, but some fiction. The first reference to Berlusconi is factual but the later one is not," he said.

The lawyer spoke of hopes that he and Ms Jowell would be reconciled. "I hope that, with peace and privacy and time, things will return to normal, but we've both been through the most ghastly trauma," he said.

It was widely understood that Ms Jowell took the decision to put their marriage on hold, as the accusations against Mr Mills heaped pressure on her to relinquish her cabinet post. But Mr Mills insisted it was his decision for the couple to separate.

Ms Jowell told BBC TV's Newsnight programme she had not considered standing down from her role heading Labour's local election campaign in London because of the storm. "In as much as any of the issues that were raised as a result of an as yet unproven case in Italy were put to me, I dealt with those to the satisfaction of the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister," she said. "Those issues have been closed by them and as far as I'm concerned, that is the end of the matter."