Berlusconi charged with corruption

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ROME -- Silvio Berlusconi, Europe's wealthiest media tycoon who was ousted this year as prime minister, was ordered Monday by a Milan judge to stand trial on charges of corruption.

David Mills, the ex-husband of British Secretary of Culture Tessa Jowell, was named as a co-defendant in the case that alleges that Berlusconi paid Mills more than $600,000 in return for Mills' favorable testimony in two previous trials against Berlusconi.

The case was the lead story on most Italian news sites and television news programs late Monday. Although the ruling was more or less expected by many observers, it was nonetheless a dramatic development for a man who until five months ago ruled the country for five years.

The probe into the case was opened in May, just after Berlusconi lost power to former European Commissioner Romano Prodi by a slim margin. Berlusconi said at the time that the investigation was politically motivated, and he vowed to clear his name.

But Judge Fabio Paparella brushed aside those concerns Monday when he refused a defense motion that he be dismissed from the case because of his involvement in a parallel case in which Berlusconi and Mills are charged with false accounting, embezzlement and tax fraud involving television distribution rights for a series of U.S. films.

Monday's decision is seen as an embarrassment for Berlusconi, who in recent weeks seems to have been positioning himself to return to power in the wake of opposition to some reform proposals championed by Prodi, Berlusconi's longtime rival.

But it could prove to be more than a humiliation: If found guilty, both men would be sentenced to three to eight years in prison.

Berlusconi has been named in criminal investigations since he stepped into public life in 1994, but he has never been found guilty. In several cases, Berlusconi was cleared when the statute of limitations ran out, and that was a risk this time as well.

If Paparella had stepped aside in this case, it would have been difficult for a new judge to get up to speed on the case and to issue a ruling before February 2008, when the statute of limitations expired.

One of the key pieces of information in the case is a letter in which Mills told his accountant that the $600,000 in question was a "gift" from "Mr. B" as a gesture of thanks for sparing him "a great deal of trouble" in Italian courts.

"I told no lies, but I turned some very tricky corners, to put it mildly," Mills' letter said.

Berlusconi and Mills -- who have both denied any wrongdoing -- are set to stand trial starting in March. The two already are scheduled to appear in court Nov. 21 on false accounting charges, but that case is considered less significant because it would not carry any jail time.

Berlusconi is the leading stakeholder in Fininvest, a holding company that controls the Mediaset television network, film distributor Medusa, Mondadori publishers, the newspaper Il Giornale, the A.C. Milan soccer club and a host of smaller media holdings. Berlusconi is reported to have a net worth of $12 billion, making him Italy's wealthiest citizen and one of the richest people in the world.
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