Berlusconi trial turns on FBI evidence


ROME -- The fraud and corruption trial of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi took a turn Friday as a U.S. District Court informed Italian authorities that evidence gathered in an FBI raid on the home and office of producer Frank Agrama was gathered illegally.

The FBI raided Agrama's Bel-Air home and office in November after an official request from Italian magistrates. But District Court Judge Dean Pregerson said that the information taken from the founder and CEO of the Harmony Gold Companies could not be used in court and must be returned intact.

Italian magistrates said Friday that they are mulling a possible appeal of the ruling, which charged that Italian investigators illegally examined private documents that would have been used in Agrama's defense.

Italian prosecutor Fabio de Pasquale told Italian daily Corriere della Sera that the proper rules had been followed and that the information gathered should be allowed to be used in court.

Although the producer has not been charged with any wrongdoing in the U.S., he has been named as a defendant in the case against Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon charged with misappropriating funds related to the purchase of rights to U.S. films for airing in Italy by Berlusconi's Mediaset broadcaster.

"This is a stinging rebuke of the Italian prosecutor's unlawful and reprehensible conduct," Alejandro N. Mayorkas, one of Agrama's attorneys said in a statement published by the Italian media. "It is my firm belief that the Italian prosecutor designed a strategy to seize and review our client's trial preparation and other privileged materials because the trial was about to start."

The trial is scheduled to get underway March 13, after being delayed four times since November -- twice to consider motions to have the lead judge thrown off the case, once because of a lawyers' strike and once after Berlusconi fainted at a rally.

Berlusconi has been dogged by legal problems for more than a decade, though he has never been convicted of any significant charge and has always maintained his innocence.