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March 1, 2013 5:29 pm
An Italian senator has told prosecutors he received €3m in bribes from Silvio Berlusconi to help bring down the last centre-left government, unleashing a fresh political storm in Rome as politicians struggle to break the deadlock resulting from this week’s inconclusive poll.
Reports first surfaced on Thursday that Sergio De Gregorio had confessed to investigating prosecutors that he had accepted bribes from Mr Berlusconi between 2006 and 2008, with the money allegedly being paid through an intermediary.
The senator confirmed the allegations to the daily Il Messaggero in an interview published on Friday, which his lawyer corroborated to the Financial Times.
Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party has reacted furiously to the allegations, accusing a politically motivated judiciary of trying to sabotage the former prime minister as he attempts to negotiate a possible coalition government with the centre-left Democratic party after elections this week resulted in a hung parliament.
Democrats said the severity of the accusations against Mr Berlusconi all but ruled out the possibility of a coalition with him as centre-right leader. Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the Democrats, has not commented on the reports but has ruled out such a coalition anyway while trying to persuade the anti-establishment Five Star Movement to support a minority government. Weeks of deadlock could ensue, with the new parliament not due to convene until March 15.
A lawyer for Mr Berlusconi has denied the allegations of bribery, and on Friday the billionaire media mogul accused the prosecutors of threatening Mr De Gregorio with “having to choose between going to jail or saying something against me”.
Speaking to reporters at a court in Milan where he was attending a hearing into his appeal against a conviction for tax fraud, Mr Berlusconi also said he would call a public rally in his defence on March 23.
Prosecutors have released 98 pages of documents detailing testimony given by Mr De Gregorio in December and January. In one of his answers he says he has “committed a crime” and admits his responsibilities.
The alleged bribery dates back to 2006 when Romano Prodi’s centre-left coalition came to office with a razor-thin majority in the Senate. Mr De Gregorio, then head of the Senate defence committee, quit the centre-left Italy of Values party that September and was one of several senators who helped bring down the Prodi government in a vote in February 2008. Mr De Gregorio then joined Mr Berlusconi’s party which won the subsequent elections.
According to the documents, the senator says he received €2m of the €3m from Mr Berlusconi through Walter Lavitola, a businessman and journalist close to the former prime minister “in strict and unquestionable” correlation with positions he took in parliament. Payments were made in cash, starting in July 2006 in amounts of €200,000 to €300,000, the senator alleged.
Mr Lavitola was arrested on his return to Italy from Panama last April and faces an array of charges, including corruption and an attempt to extort money from Mr Berlusconi. Mr Lavitola has denied the charges, and Mr Berlusconi has denied being a victim of extortion.
In the documents seen by the Financial Times, the senator described the money as payments for “sabotage through a series of actions that would have weakened the Prodi government”, although he says he did not receive precise instructions on how to do this.
Mr Berlusconi has been summoned to answer questions by the Naples prosecutors next Tuesday, according to Ansa news agency.
Mr De Gregorio told prosecutors he had asked for €3m to help support his “Italians in the world” association and to settle personal debts.
In his interview with Il Messaggero, the senator explained he wanted to “clear up” his political and personal life, saying his family had been destroyed by several years of judicial investigations. Last year the Senate voted not to lift Mr De Gregorio’s immunity as requested by a Naples court. That runs out on March 15 with the start of the next legislature and Mr De Gregorio said he expected to be placed under house arrest.
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