Berlusconi cleared of false accounting


ROME -- A Milan court on Wednesday cleared media tycoon and three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on 20-year-old charges of false accounting -- a stroke of good news that comes as the billionaire looks to position himself for a return to power with a fourth stint as Italy's head of government.

Italian president Giorgio Napolitano was set to announce later Wednesday or on Thursday that he would call for new elections or set up a caretaker government to push through a series of electoral reforms. Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned last week, setting up a possibility that Berlusconi could end up back in the political arena.

While waiting on the news from Napolitano, Berlusconi was boosted by news that the charges of false accounting tied to Berlusconi's struggle to take control of state food conglomerate SME in the late 1980s had been dropped. Berlusconi was found innocent of the charges in 2004, but the case was reopened last year because of some irregularities related to the trial. If he had been found guilty, Berlusconi could have faced up to three years in prison.

But two other major cases remain open against the 71-year-old Milan native: one to look into charges that Berlusconi used an illegal system of under-the-table payments and kickbacks to secure rights to high-profile films for broadcast on his Mediaset networks, and a second that charges Berlusconi paid British lawyer David Mills 800,000 euros ($1.2 million) to lie for him during a previous trial on the film-related charges. Berlusconi, who denies wrongdoing in both cases, sought on Tuesday to have the two cases combined into a single case, but the motion was denied.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi and his allies continue to wait with baited breath to know Napolitano's decisions. Snap elections would favor Berlusconi, whose approval ratings have risen as Prodi's fortunes failed.

If a caretaker government is formed and electoral changes are passed, it would force Berlusconi to attempt to return as prime minister under a new and unfamiliar set of electoral rules.