Judges investigate Berlusconi over 'bribe' to lawyer

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The Independent Online

Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, suffered a serious blow yesterday after a newspaper reported he was being investigated by Milan magistrates on suspicion of bribing his British lawyer, David Mills, to give false evidence in his favour.

Mr Berlusconi is alleged to have ordered a payment in 1997 to Mr Mills, the husband of Tessa Jowell, Britain's Minister for Culture, in return for giving false testimony in two trials, the Corriere della Sera newspaper reported.

Mr Mills has denied any wrongdoing. His Italian lawyer, Federico Cecconi, confirmed that prosecutors were investigating both men on charges of corruption and providing false testimony. The magistrates invited Mr Berlusconi and his lawyer to Milan to be cross-examined about the allegations this month but neither appeared in court, sources said. "We reserve the right to reject these accusations at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way," Mr Cecconi said.

The disclosure is sure to tarnish Mr Berlusconi's reputation as he struggles to crank up his media machine ahead of the 2006 general election, in which the centre-left opposition leader, Romano Prodi, is believed to be the favourite to win. But the Prime Minister, who vehemently denies the allegations, yesterday claimed the allegations had deliberately been made public in order to damage his chances of a second term. In a detailed statement, Mr Berlusconi's lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, accused Corriere della Sera of publishing secret details of the investigation in order to coincide with "delicate moments in the life of the country". Mr Ghedini, who is also a deputy for the flamboyant leader's Forza Italia party, also said Mr Mills had been a crucial witness for the prosecution in one of the trials in question, and that his statements had been "decidedly unfavourable".

Mr Mills denies the accusation that he perjured himself in a 1997 trial in which the Prime Minister faced charges of allegedly bribing the finance police to obtain favourable audits at companies belonging to his Fininvest media group. The lawyer also denies giving false testimony in a 1998 trial in which Mr Berlusconi was accused of illicitly financing his late friend and mentor Bettino Craxi's Socialist Party and of false bookkeeping to cover up the payments. Judges convicted Mr Berlusconi in both cases but he was subsequently cleared.

A Berlusconi spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, yesterday lashed out at Corriere for publishing what he said were "facts without any foundation" and accused Milan magistrates and the newspaper of launching a politically motivated attack ahead of the election.

In media circles, however, there was satisfaction that the newspaper, which Mr Berlusconi is known to have made strenuous efforts to influence in the past, had asserted its independence with the disclosure.