For years, Italy's perma-tanned 71-year-old prime minister has got away with acting like a sultan in his harem, and the Italian media, forgiving to a fault of private peccadilloes, has left him to it. He has laid siege to television eye candy, appointed some of the prettiest and least qualified ministers in Europe, then sent them billets-doux across the parliament chamber, and Italy has merely tittered and shrugged. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.
His efforts to get pretty actresses jobs at RAI, Italy's state broadcaster, have sparked a corruption case which was taken up by Rome prosecutors yesterday.
Mr Berlusconi's bevy of beauties – or his "little butterflies" as he preferred to call them – include Antonella Troise, Elena Russo, Evelina Manna, Camilla Ferranti and Eleonora Gaggioli. Transcripts of phone taps splashed across the Italian press in recent weeks reveal the prime minister working overtime to find the five women television work, and offering financial favours as inducement.
In a phone call with Agostino Sacca – the head of television fiction at the national broadcaster and the co-accused in the corruption case – the prime minister pleads for help with the comely blonde Ms Troise. "This nutter has taken it into her head that I hate her, and am blocking her career, so do me this favour because she's getting dangerous," Mr Berlusconi begs.
To a producer who had gratified his wishes he gushed: "Look, on behalf of all these little butterflies, I thank you. You've found places for everyone I gave you? You want divas? They're all Marilyn Monroes!"
Mr Berlusconi's legal counsel has made no effort to deny the authenticity of the transcripts, which led one of the prime minister's toughest political opponents, former prosecutor Antonio di Pietro, to denounce the prime minister as a "magnaccia" (pimp) who was too busy "finding work for showgirls" rather than acting as a head of state.
Yesterday the case passed from the Naples law courts to those in Rome, where prosecutors were weighing the allegations. The crime, according to the prosecutors' office, was not the act of trying to get jobs for the actresses per se, but the inducements he used. With his "two hats" – leader of the country and the biggest tycoon in the Italian television world – Mr Berlusconi allegedly promised Mr Sacca he would look after him once he returned to the private sector.
Through his political office and his media empire, the prime minister oversees 90 per cent of the country's television, and it is not the first time he has been accused of interfering at RAI. During Mr Berlusconi's last stint in power, the head of the state broadcaster resigned in protest that RAI had become simply a "mail box" for requests from Mr Berlusconi's government.
As the latest embarrassing case was getting under way, there was more bad news for Mr Berlusconi, with an earlier dalliance coming back to haunt him.
Splashed across the pages of left-leaning La Repubblica, were claims that, during his last term as PM, Silvio Berlusconi was so besotted with a pretty young television presenter that he not only bombarded her with expensive gifts to gain her favours, but obtained work for her and promotions for her estranged husband. And when the husband, a military intelligence officer, threatened to expose the relationship on the eve of a general election, Mr Berlusconi bought him off with another promotion.
Even if it does not result in another lawsuit, the details of the case expose a willingness on the prime minister's part to flirt not only with young women but with the risk of blackmail.
On 29 September 2003, halfway through his second term as prime minister, Mr Berlusconi went on all Italian television channels to sell his plan to reform Italy's pension system. Virginia Sanjust di Teulada, at the time a neophyte presenter, introduced the programme to viewers of RAI Uno, the equivalent of BBC1. The next morning Mr Berlusconi sent the presenter flowers and a note.
The presenter called the PM's office to thank him, leaving her phone number, and minutes later Mr Berlusconi telephoned to invite her to lunch. According to Ms Sanjust's lawyer she was induced to call Mr Berlusconi by her estranged husband, a secret service officer called Federico Armati, who hoped the contact would gain a promotion for him and two of his friends.
After the lunch the prime minister took his guest to his private study, pressed a package containing a diamond bracelet into her hands, and enquired about her circumstances and how he could help her. Ms Sanjust told him that her ex-husband had been hoping for a promotion. In less than two months Mr Armati had risen up the ranks.
Mr Armati later claimed that from the moment of his promotion Mr Berlusconi and Ms Sanjust enjoyed "an intense relationship" during which the prime minister phoned her daily, inundated her with expensive presents, invited her to his Sardinian villa, and successfully put her forward as the presenter of a new RAI Uno programme.
Ms Sanjust helped her ex-husband obtain another promotion and pay rise – with the aim of improving the living conditions of the estranged couple's son – but after a falling out over their child's education, Mr Armati said he was transferred to a humbler job and suffered a drastic pay cut pay, from €4,481 to €1,800 per month.
But then in March 2006, on the eve of the Italian general election, Mr Armati seized the initiative, making a declaration of the events involving himself, Ms Sanjust and Mr Berlusconi and threatening to sue the PM for "abuse of office and maltreatment". According to a statement the presenter made to her lawyer, Mr Armati threatened that he would "publicly diffuse the false news of an amorous relationship between Ms Sanjust and Hon Berlusconi ... threats that were then particularly felt because of the imminence of the general election campaign."
Shortly afterwards Mr Armati bounced back spectacularly: in April 2006 he was re-promoted with an even higher salary of €5,500 a month. And he dropped the lawsuit – because, as he told his ex-wife in conversations that she secretly taped, of his new promotion.
The case of the showgirl, the spook and the prime minister resurfaced this week when Mr Armati presented judges with a new version of the entire story. Whether or not it leads to a prosecution, it raises disturbing questions about the PM's judgement and the question of Mr Berlusconi's fitness to run his country refuses to go away.
Again his efforts to present himself – at the third time of asking – as a statesman dedicated to solving Italy's chronic problems seem to be being submerged in a tide of sleaze.
The critics who accuse him of using his political office to protect himself from criminal prosecutions have new grist for their mill as the government forges ahead with new wiretapping legislation as a matter of "extreme urgency". The law, expected to come into force within weeks, would impose stiff limits on wire taps and the publication of their contents.
But the wiretaps that have already found their way into the public domain may not only land Mr Berlusconi with a legal headache. There may be trouble closer to home – in the form of his long-suffering wife Veronica Lario.
Last year she publicly upbraided her husband, writing a letter to La Repubblica – the paper her husband hates most – demanding an apology from him for flirting publicly at an awards ceremony with two young and beautiful guests. He reportedly told one girl: "If I weren't already married, I would marry you right now."
Ms Lario, a one-time B-movie actress who has been with Mr Berlusconi for almost 30 years, pulled no punches. "These are statements I consider damaging to my dignity."
Her husband was not cowed into embarrassment, firing off a riposte of his own: "Your dignity should not be an issue: I will guard it like a precious material in my heart even when thoughtless jokes come out of my mouth." But the flirtations have continued. In his first speech to parliament after being elected prime minister for the third time, he was passing suggestive notes to two female politicians.
It seems even a pacemaker, a hair graft and the task of running a country cannot keep this Lothario down. And if the Rome prosecutors decide to press ahead with charges in the case of the RAI starlets, then Mrs Berlusconi may well find herself penning another "Dear Editor" letter before too long.
'Sorry, Mr Berlusconi'
At the end of the G8 summit, Silvio Berlusconi blew kisses to hotel staff as President George Bush joined in.
But behind this scene an embarrassed White House was tamping down a diplomatic firestorm, after it issued an insulting biography of Mr Berlusconi to the press. It described Mr Berlusconi as one of the "most controversial leaders in the history of a country known for government corruption and vice." It said, among other things, that Mr Berlusconi had burst on to the political scene with no experience and used his "vast network of media holdings" to finance his campaign.
A complaint was made, and an official and grovelling apology followed.
Leonard DoyleReuse content