An Italian prosecutor opened an investigation yesterday into the possible misuse of state aircraft by officials, after media reports that guests at Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's villa arrived on military planes.
Judicial sources said the case was opened after a complaint from the Codacons consumer association and not aimed at any specific public official. But the probe is another setback to Berlusconi as he campaigns for this weekend's European election.
The 72-year-old conservative leader is already mired in a scandal over his relationship with 18-year-old aspiring model Noemi Letizia, which has prompted his wife to ask for a divorce and stirred an outcry from the opposition.
Berlusconi, whose popularity has weathered Italy's worst post-war economic crisis, denies a sexual relationship with Letizia and says it is a private matter.
However, a photojournalist who took pictures of guests at Berlusconi's luxurious Sardianian villa, including Letizia when she was only 17, said he had pictured several people arriving aboard airforce planes, including a well-known Italian musician.
"The use of state aircraft to transport musician friends is not a private matter and is typical of this behaviour which sees state institutions as private property," said Antonio Di Pietro of the opposition Italy of Values party.
A prosecutor on Saturday granted Berlusconi's request to seize hundreds of photographer Antonello Zappadu's images, taken without the prime minister's permission from outside the villa using a powerful lens, on the grounds that they violated the right to privacy.
Opposition politicians have vowed to raise questions in parliament over the misuse of state aircraft, while Berlusconi has said he wants tighter privacy laws. He has described the scandal as a bid by left-leaning parties to smear his reputation before the June 6-7 European vote.
"The Left has nothing to propose, except to ride on the back of calumnies and violate the privacy of others, and I am sure that this campaign of hate and envy will fly back in their faces like a boomerang," Berlusconi told state radio, also playing down the seriousness of a growing crisis in Sicily over uncollected garbage.
He insisted his approval ratings were still high and had only slipped to 73 percent from 75.1 percent, despite the media scandal. He did not cite a source for these figures.
Berlusconi has been the subject of several court cases during his political career. In every instance he has either been acquitted, or the case ran out of time, or he has passed legislation making himself immune from prosecution.
In February, a court sentenced British lawyer David Mills to four years and six months in prison for taking a bribe from then-opposition leader Berlusconi in 1997. Berlusconi has immunity from prosecution as prime minister under a law introduced by his government in July last year.