'I'm mortified for Tessa,' says Jowell's husband as Berlusconi bribery row grows

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The husband of a senior Cabinet minister said he was "mortified" after he admitted claiming he had taken a £400,000 bribe from Silvio Berlusconi. David Mills told The Independent on Sunday tht he felt deeply ashamed for the political embarrassment he has caused his wife, Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture.

But the international lawyer insisted he had not been bribed by the Italian Prime Minister. He said he had invented the claim in a letter to his accountant to protect the identity of a client. Two Italian newspaper had published leaked documents from an on-going bribery investigation which prosecutors claim amount to a "smoking gun".

Most embarrassing is a letter from Mr Mills to Bob Darren, of the Rawlinson and Hunter accountancy firm, dated 2 February 2004. It states: "My evidence (I didn't lie but I experienced difficult moments in putting things in a delicate way) has kept Mr B [Berlusconi] from a sea of troubles into which I could have thrown him if I had only said everything that I knew. At the end of 1999 I was told that I would receive money that I should consider as a long-term loan or a present. For obvious reasons (at that moment I was still a prosecution witness though I had already given evidence) it was necessary that everything was done with discretion."

The 60-year-old lawyer, a fixture of the New Labour establishment, admitted last night that the document was genuine, and said it was an ill-judged attempt to protect a client's identity. "I went to these people for advice. I invented what was a completely imaginary or largely imaginary scenario to be able to get the advice I wanted.

"Unfortunately, that letter fell into the hands of the Italian magistrate, who took it literally and then of course the whole thing exploded horribly in my face." Mr Mills said that it had been "the most idiotic thing I have ever done in my life".

He added: "The whole thing has been a complete disaster. I have landed myself with accusations of corruption which is complete nonsense." He said he had provided Italian prosecutors with an irrefutable paper trail showing money had not come from Mr Berl- usconi and the leaks were an admission that the case had no chance of success.

Asked if he regretted the embarrassment he had caused his wife, he replied: "I am absolutely mortified. Of course I am utterly mortified." Lawyers for Mr Mills have been told prosecutors intend to charge him with corruption and perjury.

Mr Mills is being investigated in Italy for money-laundering and alleged tax fraud, which he denies. He is the architect of the network of offshore funds that shrouds Mr Berlusconi's business affairs.

The business dealings of Ms Jowell's second husband attracted adverse publicity first in 1996 when he was involved in a deal to sell tanks to Pakistan. Another business venture, this time to sell planes to Iran, also excited controversy. Mr Mills, whom friends describe as charming and intelligent, is said to be "intellectually competitive".

Ms Jowell fell for his charms while married to her first husband, Roger. Both were councillors in the London Borough of Camden, but in 1977 the Labour politician admitted having an affair with Mr Mills and set up home with him after he left his wife.