Corruption and crime

The breathtaking hypocrisy surrounding the Mills case must be exposed, argues Toby Abse

The verdict of Italy’s supreme court to overturn on a mere technicality the conviction of British businessman and lawyer David Mills for corruption sends out a profoundly ambiguous message.

On the one hand, it confirms that the relative autonomy of the higher ranks of the judiciary from Italy’s thoroughly corrupt political elite has the same limits as it has had in the past, when prominent Christian Democrats like Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister accused of long-term involvement with the Mafia, also escaped justice on technical grounds. On the other hand, it in no way challenges the substance of what the original Milanese court concluded on February 17 2009 and the appeal court upheld in September 2009: namely that David Mills accepted a bribe of $600,000 from Silvio Berlusconi in return for having given false, or at best wilfully misleading, testimony in two earlier cases in which Berlusconi faced criminal charges.

Contrary to some reports in the British and Italian media, the verdict does not in any meaningful sense clear Mills’s name or undermine the case against Berlusconi as the alleged bribe-giver (in what was once the same case, but has become a parallel one as a result of Berlusconi’s use of his governmental office to introduce all manner of delays). It needs to be underlined that the only reason that Mills has escaped a nominal four-and-a-half-year jail sentence (which would in all probability have been converted into a form of house arrest with community service - the fate of Berlusconi’s longest-standing Italian legal associate and former defence minister, Cesare Previti, who was convicted of bribing judges) is that the supreme court held that the alleged crime dated from November 1999, when Mills was made aware that the funds were at his disposal, and not from February 2000, when he actually withdrew the money. Thus it was ‘timed out’ under the statute of limitations, which currently operates a 10-year rule in cases of this type.

As Antonio Di Pietro, the leader of the small, oppositional, Italia dei Valori party, rightly commented, “This is an embarrassment. The crime which Mills and Berlusconi were accused of has been proved, but, thanks to the usual escapology, justice has elapsed because of time. In any normal country a prime minister involved in such a case would have resigned.” Whilst individual figures within the mainstream centre-left Democratic Party may follow suit, it is hard to imagine the party as a whole taking this position, given its record of spineless acceptance of, and at times collusion in, Berlusconi’s made-to-measure laws.

Berlusconi is on record as having said (on June 20 2008): “I don’t know David Mills - I swear it on the lives of my five children. If it was true, I would retire from political life, I would leave Italy.” However, Mills was not just one of the many lawyers employed by Berlusconi over the years, but the man who from 1979 onwards created the network of offshore companies that have been central to his business empire and to his dealings with the pre-1994 political elite - most notably Bettino Craxi, the former Socialist prime minister who died a fugitive from Italian justice in Tunisia.

The most notorious of these companies set up with Mills’s assistance was All Iberian, from which Craxi received the massive bribes that led him to completely change the Italian laws on commercial television, which had previously only been legal at the local, as opposed to national, level. Of this episode Berlusconi said in 1999: “I have declared publicly, in my capacity as a political leader responsible to my electors, that I don’t even know of the existence of this All Iberian. I challenge anybody to demonstrate the contrary.”

To say that Berlusconi is a persistent, shameless and indeed pathological liar is perhaps to state the obvious. The extent of his denials in relation to Mills and All Iberian is perhaps more significant - his fear was that if he was linked to Mills, his whole web of obfuscations would fall apart. Hence the desperate need to disentangle his fate from Mills’s in the case that has just been decided.

Mills appeared to damn himself both in his extremely revealing and reckless letter to his accountant, Bob Drennan, handed over at a meeting between the two men in February 2004, and in his confession to the Milanese magistrates in July of that year, when he was unexpectedly presented with the text of this incriminating letter, whose arrival in Italy he had previously been unaware of. The confession, although subsequently retracted - with predictable allegations that it had been extorted under duress by dastardly, politically motivated foreigners - made a lot more sense than the elaborate story that Mills eventually concocted about receiving the money from another client, the businessman Diego Attanasio. Attanasio told the court at Mills’s original trial: “I have never lent or given $600,000 to the lawyer Mills.” He pointed out that, since he was in prison on corruption charges in July1997, he would have been in no position to arrange a transfer from any of his bank accounts.

It is, to say the least, interesting that other testimony in the case from Flavio Briatore and Paolo Marcuccio, two other Italian clients of Mills, left the distinct impression that he did not give his clients a proper account of what he did with their money, and deliberately confused it with his own, although even accidental confusion would be regarded as unprofessional conduct in a solicitor. A former friend of Mills, Marina Mahler, was astonished at the use of her signature and a photocopy of her identity card, taken without her permission in the course of these transactions.

In the light not only of what is at best a ‘not proven’ verdict in the supreme court and the revelations about his use of clients’ money - negligent at best, fraudulent at worst - it is hard to believe that Mills, who has qualifications as both a barrister and a solicitor, will ever work again as a lawyer in the United Kingdom, despite his close connections at the very heart of the New Labour establishment.

This brings us to the question of his relationship with his allegedly estranged wife, Tessa Jowell, minister for London and the Olympics and Labour MP for Dulwich. Here I somewhat reluctantly feel compelled, for obvious legal reasons, despite our distaste for a newspaper that usually targets asylum-seekers and teenage mothers, to quote verbatim from Nick Pisa’s report in The Daily Mail of February 26:

“Miss Jowell, 62, announced her separation from Mr Mills four years ago, as news of the charges against him and her close involvement in his finances emerged. Some observers claimed it was a ploy to distance herself from his problems and her involvement, despite her insistence that the separation was unconnected.

“Miss Jowell had signed documents for a huge loan taken out on their £1 million home in north London - allegedly repaid shortly after with the bribe money. However, she maintained she was unaware of the payment Mr Mills received from Mr Berlusconi, 73. A cabinet inquiry later cleared her of wrongdoing.

“Meanwhile rumours continue about the relationship between Miss Jowell and Mr Mills. The couple sold their marital home in north London and declared that Mills would live in rural Warwickshire, while Miss Jowell would live in Highgate, north London. But Mills helped his supposedly estranged wife move into her new flat, and stayed the night. There have been numerous sightings of the pair together socially since.

“Last year a friend revealed Miss Jowell still loves her husband ‘very much’, spending most weekends with him and even hosting dinners for cabinet ministers and senior Labour figures with him.”

Given Jowell’s key role in fostering the friendship between Berlusconi and the Blairs that led to the notorious Sardinian holiday in which Tony and Cherie were photographed with their friend Silvio (wearing a bandana to disguise his recent hair transplant), as well as the way Jowell stiffened the resistance of a Blair depressed by the outcome of the Iraq war into lingering at No10 when an increasingly angry Brown was virtually knocking on the door, such dinners sound all too probable.

Not least because New Labour and its establishment allies destroyed the careers of rebellious MPs like Ian Gibson and Harry Cohen for rather more minor financial misdemeanours, we should have no hesitation in arguing that this breathtaking hypocrisy needs to be exposed in the coming general election in the Dulwich seat. Southwark socialists should stop picking a fight with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in Camberwell and Peckham, and transfer their energies into the neighbouring constituency.

Even the hard-up sections of the middle class would take a dim view of mortgages paid off with Berlusconi’s ill-gotten gains, if a thorough campaign was waged against the egregious ultra-Blairite, Tessa Jowell, by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.