Berlusconi 'off the hook' over corruption cases

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The Independent Online

Opposition MPs and magistrates yesterday claimed the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, had saved himself from jail on corruption cases after the parliament – dominated by his right-wing House of Freedom coalition – passed a law to decriminalise false-accounting practices.

Such practices are often used by company directors to conceal fraud.

The bill, which was passed to cries of "shame, shame" from the opposition benches, wipes out years of work by investigating magistrates on hundreds of cases of corporate financial misdoings. These will include, according to opposition politicans, three cases that involve Mr Berlusconi. "This bill is tailor-made for Berlusconi," the left-wing opposition politician Luciano Violante said.

The bill will automatically stop most investigations for false company accounting after four and half years, and all of them after seven and a half years. It will mean that the practice is only an offence if the company is quoted on the stock exchange, and only then if individuals can prove they have suffered personal damage.

The three cases in which Mr Berlusconi was found guilty – although he is appealing against the verdicts – involve two off-shore financial companies and the AC Milan football team. All three are holdings belonging to his company, Fininvest, which is also the major shareholder of Mr Berlusconi's television company, Mediaset.

There are other allegations against the media magnate, such as links to the Mafia, but these have not been proved.

Under current Italian law, which will now change, false accounting was a serious offence punishable by up to five years in prison. False accounting can be used to hide financial irregularities such as illegal cash transfers from offshore companies and bribery.

Because of the length of time investigations can take, and because of Italy's complicated appeals procedure, company directors can have cases hanging over them for years.

Italian magistrates have been looking into Mr Berlusconi's business dealings since 1993. He strongly denies all the allegations and says it is a conspiracy by left-wing judges.

"We have made this law in the interests of the Italian economy," said Gaetano Pecorella, the president of the parliament's judicial affairs committee who is also to be Mr Berlusconi's personal lawyer. "It is not acceptable that the director of a company can be waiting for a legal trial for more than 15 years."

The centre-left opposition tabled more than 1,000 amendments to try to to block the bill, which was debated for two days. "The country should be aware that the new regime for false accounting is the legal solution to the judicial woes of the Prime Minister," said Emilio Del Bono, a centre-left opposition MP.

The new law is due to be voted on by the country's upper house, the Senate – also dominated by Mr Berlusconi's ruling coalition – in September.

Gerardo D'Ambrosio, a prominent judge in the "clean hands" anti-corruption campaign of the 1990s, said the new law would "make it much more difficult to pursue crimes of this kind".

"Why is it that it was thought better to leave the reform of such a delicate and complex law just in the hands of politicians, rather that involving first the academic world and listening to lawyers and experts in international law?" he asked.

"Often, behind false accounting lies false invoicing, dirty money, and fake and off-shore companies."

As part of thebill, the parliament also agreed to eliminatesome tax breaks given to worker co-operatives.