New scandal added to Berlusconi ledger

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ROME -- Silvio Berlusconi is under investigation again, this time for allegedly trying to bully state broadcaster RAI into casting two unknown actresses for roles in a popular soap opera as a way to curry favor with the male parliamentarians the two women were involved with.

The story, which first appeared in Friday's editions of the Rome daily La Repubblica, gives an unfiltered view behind the scenes in the Italian media industry dominated for years by Berlusconi and his allies. Berlusconi, a three-time prime minister who controls television and film giant Mediaset, is Italy's wealthiest citizen and one of the world's most powerful media tycoons.

According to a seven-minute wiretap transcript of a conversation between Berlusconi and the head of RAI's drama division, Agostino Sacca, Berlusconi promised favors and then became aggressive in trying to persuade Sacca to put the two actresses on the air.

The transcript showed that Sacca demurred, though the names of the actresses were withheld and so it is not known if they found work on other RAI programs.

A RAI spokesman declined comment on the story when contacted.

According to La Repubblica, the two women had undefined "relationships" with two lawmakers in the ruling coalition led by Berlusconi's main political rival, Romano Prodi. Berlusconi was seeking to influence those parliamentarians to join Berlusconi's opposition coalition for a series of key votes that would have damaged Prodi. Since the names of the lawmakers were withheld as well, it is not known how they voted.

The probe into Berlusconi's actions is among nearly 100 such investigations dating back to when the media kingpin first entered politics in 1994 -- but he has never been found guilty, due mostly to expiring statutes of limitations and cases thrown out of technicalities. At least five of those cases are still open.

In regard to the report in La Repubblica, Berlusconi issued a statement saying it was "a pure fabrication" and denying any wrongdoing. The newspaper, meanwhile, said it stands by the story.
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