Berlusconi still in the dock

The former premier may have been 'cleared' on a technicality, writes Toby Abse, but the repercussions of the whole affair persist in both the Italian and British establishments

The inconclusive verdict in Silvio Berlusconi’s trial for paying British lawyer David Mills a $600,000 bribe for bearing false witness in earlier trials involving Berlusconi in 1997 and 1998 is a striking confirmation both of the utter absurdity of the official Italian claim that “The law is equal for all”, proclaimed on the wall of every courtroom; and of the marked degree of continuity between Berlusconi and the current prime minister, Mario Monti.

The two men had a very friendly lunch together at Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister’s official residence, three days before the February 25 verdict. Berlusconi let it be known through the press in advance of the lunch that he would be asking for “clarity about justice”, that he was hoping there would be no legislation about false accounting or “the conflict of interests” (taken to mean his ownership of three private television channels) and that he also wanted to discuss appointments to the leading positions in the state television channels (RAI).[1] A few hours later, at a dinner at the home of parliamentary deputy Melania Rizzoli on the evening of February 22, Berlusconi is said to have remarked that “Monti is a bourgeois [borghese] like us. He speaks well. He is able. I asked him to be minister of finance before he became prime minister.” Apparently Berlusconi added: “I know him very well. We often discuss things. I sent him to Europe. He owes me a lot, a very great deal.”[2]

Timed out

That Monti and his cabinet represent not just the bourgeoisie in the broad, continental sense of the word, but are very much part of the ‘one percent’ to which Berlusconi himself belongs, was confirmed on the day of the decisive lunch by the publication - or, to be more exact, the partial publication - of information about the incomes and property of the new cabinet ministers. Mario Monti himself earned €1,010,000 in 2011 - slightly down from the €1.5 million he earned in 2010. He owns 16 properties in Milan, Varese and Brussels, as well as co-owning an office and two shops in Milan. In addition he has €11 million-worth of shares - of which 5.3 million are in the Italian bank, Intesa Sanpaolo, and 4.6 million in the French bank, BNP Paribas. Moreover, his wife, Elsa Antonioli, earned €2,025,500 in 2011, almost twice as much as he did.

Whilst many had wrongly assumed that Corrado Passera, the minister of economic development and former head of the Banca Intesa, would have been the wealthiest member of the cabinet, his 2011 income of €3,529,602 was far exceeded by that of the justice minister and leading lawyer, Paola Severino, with her astonishing €7,005,649. Annamaria Cancellieri, the interior minister and former prefect, did not choose to reveal her income, but declared the ownership of no less than 24 properties in Rome and Milan. Elsa Fornero, the labour minister, received a measly €402,000, but owns five properties, which will doubtless ensure her a decent income in retirement. Giampaolo Di Paola, the defence minister and a retired admiral, received a platinum-plated pension of €314,522, as well as getting an additional €29,441 for service abroad. The foreign minister Giulio Maria Terzi di Sant’Agata, previously ambassador to Washington, had as a public servant to make do on €340,000, although one assumes this did not include the expenses for the numerous dinners and receptions that go with the role, long regarded as the most prestigious embassy in the Italian diplomatic service.

The clear class character of the Monti administration is evident from the absolute figures given above, but it has been made even more conspicuous in recent days by the publication of Eurostat figures for Italian salaries. The Italian average of €23,046 is the lowest in the European Union apart from Malta, Portugal, Slovenia and Slovakia. It was no surprise that this was far lower than the German average of €41,100, yet many were a little shocked to see Italy below Spain (€26,316) and Greece (€29,160).[3]

It had been clear for some time that Berlusconi would never be definitively convicted of giving the bribe according to Italian law, since the case would be timed out under a statute of limitations that Berlusconi’s own government had altered for his personal convenience in 2005. The relevant time period was reduced to 10 years (from the previous 15) long before Berlusconi had exercised his right to appeal to both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court (Cassazione). And the Cassazione judges did indeed rule that the statute of limitations had expired.[4]

However, the possibility of a guilty verdict at the end of the trial itself (in Italy a verdict is not regarded as binding until every appeal is complete, in contrast to English or Scottish law) was a very real one and this was causing Berlusconi acute anxiety. He felt that an initial guilty verdict, irrespective of the fact it would be overturned on a technicality, would weaken him politically, especially internationally, and undermine his legal position in the three ongoing trials he faces - such as the Ruby case, in which he is accused of having sex with an under-age prostitute.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that this is the sixth occasion on which Berlusconi has escaped any legal penalty through a statute of limitations ,and that of the 17 criminal trials in which he has been a defendant, only four have ended in a straightforward acquittal. On two occasions the crime has been wiped out by an amnesty and in another two cases, involving false accounting, he benefited from the decriminalisation of this offence by one of his own governments. As Antonio Di Pietro of the populist, anti-corruption Italia dei Valori party pointed out after the verdict in the Mills case, “In all these years Berlusconi has simply passed a series of laws to avoid being convicted. But how is he an innocent man? He is an unpunished guilty man, because if he was really innocent he would renounce the protection of the statute of limitations and let himself be tried.”

Whilst Di Pietro was more forthright than most leaders of the ex-‘official communist’-dominated Partito Democratico (PD), few of them were as indulgent towards Berlusconi as Matteo Renzi, the PD mayor of Florence (a fanatical neoliberal, who tried to end the May Day bank holiday for shop workers in his city). Renzi’s absurd claim - that “Silvio Berlusconi has been acquitted and I hope this puts an end to the era of the football terraces (curve) and ultras”[5] - has been endorsed by very few others.

Mills farce

Although many of the cases involving Berlusconi have a farcical side, the Mills case is arguably the most farcical of those that have reached any sort of conclusion. It was a simple case of one man - Berlusconi - bribing another - David Mills - to give false, or any rate incomplete and wilfully misleading, evidence, and the bribe-taker has been found guilty of taking the bribe. Given the attempt by Mills, supported by a wide-ranging coterie of Blairites in British politics and the media,[6] to suggest that his conviction was actually overturned, it needs to be reiterated, at the risk of tedium, that this is not the case.

David Mills was found guilty of receiving the $600,000 bribe at the end of his trial in October 2008 and sentenced to four and a half years in prison, which under Italian law only becomes operative at the end of an unsuccessful appeal process (should the defendant choose to mount an appeal - which most poverty-stricken petty criminals do not, regardless of any flaws in the prosecution case against them). Mills, a man of very substantial means, did indeed appeal, but the verdict was upheld by the Court of Appeal in September 2009. He then went on to take the case to the Cassazione in February 2010. The judges dealing with the case confirmed that Mills had been a corrupt witness, but annulled the penalty on the grounds that the case was timed out by the statute of limitations.

Whilst as a result Mills has not had to spend any time behind bars, it is hard to believe that his insistence in recent times on describing himself as a former lawyer is not because this man, who in his time qualified as both a barrister and a solicitor, realises that the British legal system would regard him as unfit to practise either profession. What makes the Mills case particularly droll is that this notoriously devious and slippery operator was convicted as a result of his own letter, to his own accountant, which admitted the crime in question in a bid to avoid paying tax on the sum. The letter included the subsequently notorious phrases about having “turned some very tricky corners, to put it mildly”, which “had kept Mr B out of a great deal of trouble that I would have landed him in if I had said all that I knew”.

Mills had made a full confession to the Milanese magistrates on the night of July 17-18 2004, when unexpectedly presented with the text of this incriminating letter. 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 - and shamelessly reiterated when eventually, after postponements due to alleged ill health, he finally gave evidence via video link from London in Berlusconi’s own trial. Mills claimed to have received the money from another client, businessman Diego Attanasio, who told the court at Mills’ original trial: “I have never lent or given $600,000 to the lawyer, Mills” and pointed out that, since he was in prison on corruption charges in July 1997, he would have been in no position to transfer anything to Mills.

The Mills case has, of course, far greater international ramifications than the vast majority of Berlusconi’s misdemeanours. David Mills is the (allegedly estranged) husband of Labour MP and former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell, who played a central role in the New Labour establishment. She undoubtedly paved the way for the very close friendship that once existed between Berlusconi and Tony Blair, immortalised in that photograph of the two men and Cherie Blair. In that photo, taken during the Blairs’ infamous Sardinian holiday at Berlusconi’s residence, which subsequently hosted so many bunga-bunga parties, Berlusconi was wearing a bandana to cover his recent hair transplant.

Whilst all this may in part explain Berlusconi’s willingness, despite the massive Italian opposition to the Iraq war, to involve Italian forces in the occupation of Iraq alongside the British army, its clearest legacy for Londoners is the 2012 Olympics. It may be remembered that Britain won the nomination in July 2005 on the fourth round of a secret electronic ballot of the International Olympic Committee by a wafer-thin margin of 54 votes to 50. This unexpected narrow victory over the French favourites undoubtedly involved some last-minute vote-switching. Traditionally the Italians would have voted for their Latin sister, but it is widely believed that Berlusconi prevailed on the Italian representative to abandon his Parisian preference at a time when Tony Blair was British prime minister and Tessa Jowell was minister for sport.

PM and president

Nonetheless, if any external pressure was brought to bear on the Milanese judges in the last few days,[7] it seems far more likely to have originated within Italy. Whilst Monti may perhaps wish to ingratiate himself with David Cameron as a counterweight to the German chancellor, he is hardly likely to need any favours from Blair. If the Monti government is set on a confrontation over the removal of working class rights in article 18, it will need more consistent support from Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL). There are growing cracks within the PD, which has so far been siding with Monti, with some leading figures on the PD’s more social democratic and pro-trade union left at least flirting with the idea of participating in the demonstration against the government in defence of article 18 called for March 9 - a stance which former leader Walter Veltroni had denounced in no uncertain terms.

Such support for Monti would not have been forthcoming from the PdL if Berlusconi had felt the game was up for him on the legal front.[8] The employers’ confederation, Confindustria, went on the offensive over article 18 the day before what one might guess was the most important lunchtime meeting Berlusconi and Monti had ever had. On February 21 Confindustria leader Emma Marcegaglia was speaking at a conference of Federmeccanica, the traditionally very hard-line engineering employers’ federation, where she had said: “We would like a trade union that does not protect chronic absentees and thieves, those who don’t do their job.” She added: “Confindustria does not want to abolish article 18, which ought to remain for discriminatory sackings. But there must be the possibility of sacking those who don’t do their job.”[9]

Finally, Monti is not the only prominent Italian political figure who might, perhaps, have wished for the judges to take a lenient view of Berlusconi. It should never be forgotten that in the days when Italy’s current president, Giorgio Napolitano, was the leader of the rightwing miglioristi current in the former Partito Comunista Italiano, the miglioristi were always anxious to keep on good terms with the notoriously corrupt Socialist Party leader, Bettino Craxi - even during the period when Enrico Berlinguer, the PCI secretary general, took up a principled stance of total opposition to Craxi and his entourage. Napolitano wrote a very long letter to Craxi’s widow, Anna, in 2010 on the tenth anniversary of her husband’s death, in which he said the deceased had been treated with “a harshness without equal” and drew attention to criticisms of the verdict in one of Craxi’s trials,[10] made by the European Court of Human Rights.

It might be noted that Craxi was not always so generous to Napolitano and, in one trial in which the socialist did appear in court, he accused Napolitano of keeping silent about the ‘illegal financing’ of the PCI. This should probably be taken as a reference to Italian entrepreneurs rather than payments from the Soviet Union, about which the fervently anti-Soviet Craxi is unlikely to have had any inside knowledge. Of course, it is generally accepted that Berlusconi made illegal payments to Craxi, although it is harder to believe that he would have financed the communists, even in Milan, or that Napolitano would have known about it if he had done so.



1. La Repubblica February 22. Some might be surprised at the blatant way he drew attention to his desire to discuss such personal matters rather than claiming to be concerned about the economic situation, electoral reform, industrial relations or some other issues about which it would have been easier to justify a discussion between a sitting premier and a former prime minister, who nominally commands a majority of the deputies .

2. La Repubblica February 24.

3. These Eurostat figures are taken from La Repubblica February 27. It is not clear whether the Greek figures take account of the recent and drastic pay cuts imposed during 2011.

4. The reasoning behind the verdict reached by the three female judges will be revealed within 90 days. My understanding is that, if they had decided that Berlusconi was innocent, that would have had precedence over the statute of limitations and that such a verdict of outright acquittal was what Berlusconi’s lawyers were seeking.

5. La Repubblica February 27.

6. Whilst Mills and his wife, Tessa Jowell, used to be, and perhaps still are, personal friends of leading figures on The Guardian, which has never shown much enthusiasm in following up any story about the couple, David Mills’ daughter by his first marriage, Eleanor Mills, has long had an important role on Rupert Murdoch’s The Sunday Times.

7. One of the three judges, Francesca Vitale, had been part of a bench that acquitted the Popolo della Libertà Lombard regional president, Roberto Formigoni, in 2006, so the interpretation of the statute of limitations may reflect their own inclinations.

8. It might be argued that the PdL had no interest in bringing down the Monti government and precipitating an early general election, since, according to an IPSOS poll cited by La Repubblica (February 27), the PdL is down to 22% in the polls, and a hypothetical and increasingly unlikely centre-right bloc of the PdL, Lega Nord and hard-right Destra would only get 33%, as against 37% for a possible alliance of the PD, IdV and SEL. However, such rational calculations take no account of the way Berlusconi might react if he felt he was cornered.

9. La Repubblica February 22.

10. Craxi, like Berlusconi, had no great inclination to appear in court. However, Craxi took this stance a bit further, fleeing the country and taking refuge in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, where he eventually died.