Mills cleared of bribery after 10-year case expires

Ruling means parallel case against Silvio Berlusconi is likely to be dropped
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A British tax lawyer has had his bribery conviction overturned by Italy's top appeals court. The judge ruled that the charges against David Mills had expired under a 10-year statute of limitations, bringing to an end a 10-year saga.

Prosecutor Gianfranco Ciani had earlier said there was no doubt he had accepted a bribe but the case should be annulled as it had gone on too long. The ruling is a major victory for Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Prime Minister, whose parallel corruption case could now be dropped. It had been put on hold pending the outcome of Mr Mills' final appeal.

Reacting to the decision, Mr Mills said: "I am very relieved that this saga has finally now come to an end and happy to be able to get back to a normal life again. I am grateful beyond words to my family and friends who knew I was innocent and have supported me all the way."

Mr Mills, who is the estranged husband of the Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, had been convicted in February 2009 of taking a £400,000 bribe from Mr Berlusconi to give false evidence in two 1990s trials relating to the purchase of US film rights. He was given a four-and-a-half-year jail sentence which was upheld on appeal by a court in Milan in October.

Yesterday's case before Italy's Supreme Court marked the second and final level of appeal, at which the prosecution changed its stance.

Ciani told the court there was no doubt that the money changed hands, but that the alleged crime dated from 11 November 1999, when Mr Mills was made aware that the funds were at his disposal. Previous courts have held that the corruption occurred on 29 February 2000, when Mills actually withdrew the money, which would mean the statute of limitations would not yet have taken effect.

Mr Ciani said the "golden rule" when there was doubt over the date of a crime was to choose "the moment most favourable to the accused". His recommendation called for the case to be abandoned. There was no further explanation of why the prosecution position had changed. The Briton was ordered to pay €250,000 (£222,000) to the Italian government for damage to its image. His four-and-a-half-year jail sentence was overturned.

Mr Mills had worked as a consultant advising Mr Berlusconi on offshore tax havens. Evidence against him included a letter written in 2004 from Mr Mills to Bob Drennan, his accountant, in which he admitted that he had received a "gift". He wrote that he had "turned a few tricky corners, to put it mildly" while giving evidence which had "kept Mr B. out of a great deal of trouble he would have been in had I said all I knew".

Mr Mills initially admitted having received money from Mr Berlusconi "in recognition" of the evidence he had given, but later said the money had come from an Italian shipping magnate, Diego Attanasio.

The ruling comes as Mr Berlusconi faces regional elections next month. These are seen as a test of his popularity and the strength of his governing coalition in the face of several corruption scandals involving his closest allies.

Guido Bertolaso, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, who was hailed a hero for his handling of last year's Abruzzo earthquake, has been accused of accepting money and sexual favours in return for awarding building contracts to corrupt businessmen.

The Italian leader's popularity has fallen to 46 per cent from the 60 per cent rating he received when he was elected as Prime Minister for the third time in May 2008. Mr Berlusconi, who claims he is the victim of a left-wing plot, attacked the judiciary over the latest corruption investigations involving some of his closest allies, saying investigators should be "ashamed of themselves".

Berlusconi this week announced new "anti-corruption" measures, promising that his party would put forward only "clean" candidates for the regional elections.