Berlusconi faces new corruption allegations

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The Independent Online
Italy's former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, already under investigation for allegations of tax fraud, headed for further trouble yesterday as magistrates in Milan were reported to be checking new allegations of financial irregularities within his indebted Fininvest business empire. Leading newspapers all reported that the names of Mr Berlusconi, his brother Paolo, who was questioned by magistrates for two hours yesterday, and a Fininvest tax expert, Salvatore Sciascia, had been entered on an investigative register by the Milan poolof anti-corruption magistrates, on suspicion of fiddling Fininvest's books.

The allegation appeared related to the acquisition by Mr Berlusconi's football club, AC Milan, of the international forward, Gianluigi Lentini. Magistrates have already alleged that Milan paid 10bn lire (£4m) or more under the counter for Lentini via oneor more secret bank accounts in Switzerland.

The chief prosecutor in Milan, Francesco Saverio Borrelli, neither confirmed nor denied the reports but said more details might be forthcoming in a few days. It was the Milan pool which announced in November that Mr Berlusconi was under investigation fortax bribery, thus precipitating the fall of his government after just seven months.

The suggestion of further judicial trouble for Mr Berlusconi only confirms a growing impression that he is losing hold of the political supremacy he once enjoyed. His ally on the far right, National Alliance leader Gianfranco Fini, has stolen much of histhunder, particularly since the Alliance ditched its neo-Fascist heritage at its inaugural congress last weekend.

Yesterday Mr Berlusconi's spokesman, Jas Gawronski, said the media mogul now regretted going into politics at all, and was not interested in taking back the prime minister's office.

"[After last year's elections] he was the only one who could do it, but not any more," Mr Gawronski told the Rome daily Il Messaggero. "It seems a bit premature to talk about Fini, but maybe in a little while."

For centre parties like the Northern League and the Christian Democrat Popular Party who are trying to decide whether to swing to the right or left, Mr Fini, not Mr Berlusconi, has become the man to negotiate with.

The Popular Party's leader, Rocco Buttiglione, made overtures to Mr Fini in a speech to the National Alliance's congress, to the fury of many of his parliamentary colleagues who are threatening rebellion if any deal between the two is struck.

Meanwhile, a dissident fraction of the League has threatened to go back to the Fini/Berlusconi fold in defiance of their leader, Umberto Bossi.The Prime minister, Lamberto Dini, won his final vote of confidence in the Senate yesterday. His administrationis hanging by a thread and if the centre disintegrates and the right picks up 10 or 20 extra deputies, Mr Fini and Mr Berlusconi will be able to decide exactly when to push him.