Sign here with me

More Italian blogging later. While we’re waiting for what I fervently hope will be good news (apparently Berlusconi’s been running at 3.7 to 1, which is encouraging) there’s a Guardian story which needs a bit of background. This gets a bit dense, but stick with it. Now, watch closely…

David Mills, the estranged husband of the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, is to lay before an Italian court recently found documents which, he said, “totally exploded” the accusation that he took a bribe from Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.A judge is to open a hearing in June to decide whether Mr Berlusconi and his former legal adviser, Mr Mills, should be sent for trial. Prosecutors claim the British lawyer took $600,000 (£345,000) from Italy’s billionaire leader for witholding evidence in two trials involving Mr Berlusconi. Both men have denied the charges. The prosecutors received a letter written by Mr Mills two years ago in which he said he accepted the money after giving testimony that “kept Mr B out of a great deal of trouble”. Mr Mills initially confirmed this in a statement to the prosecutors that he has since retracted.

Court papers show the prosecutors claim the money was wrapped into a bigger payment of $2,050,000 made in 1997 to an account in Mr Mills’s name. However, the payment did not come from Mr Berlusconi, but from a trust of which the beneficiary was another of Mr Mills’s Italian clients, a Neapolitan shipowner, Diego Attanasio. Prosecutors have not produced evidence so far to show the money received by Mr Mills was paid by Mr Berlsuconi and appear to be relying on his retracted statement.

Ever since changing his story in November 2004, Mr Jowell’s husband has argued that Mr Attanasio ordered the transfer and was the sole source of the funds. The latest documents help support that claim. One is a fax sent to Mr Mills last Friday by Mr Attanasio’s former trustees in the Bahamas. The fax states that they had been unable to find any credits to the trust’s accounts “in the amount of or close to $600,000” – the sum prosecutors said Mr Mills was paid by Mr Berlusconi.

A second document was among those flourished by Mr Berlusconi last week at a press conference in Rome at which he accused the prosecutors of conspiring to bring down his government. It is a letter written on July 17 1997 and signed by Mr Attanasio notifying his trustees in the Bahamas of the imminent arrival of $10m and instructing them to forward $2,050,000 of the money to Mr Mills’s account. Beneath the ship owner’s signature is a written note from Mr Mills: “I confirm that the above is the signature of Mr Diego Attanasio”.

The letter is dated just a few days before Mr Attanasio was jailed as part of an unconnected corruption investigation. A warrant was issued for his arrest on July 18 1997, and executed three or four days later, according to Italian media reports. Mr Mills told the Guardian he had prepared the letter for Mr Attanasio’s signature. He said: “I have no recollection of how or where it was signed, but it is unquestionably his genuine signature.” The new document is at odds with statements given by Mr Attanasio to the prosecutors last December and in February in which he said he ruled out “even indirectly having given orders” for the payment. Mr Attanasio acknowledged he had given Mr Mills a “large sum of money” before his arrest. But he said he had left it to his British lawyer to manage.

The Italian daily La Repubblica reported on Saturday that prosecutors had “serious doubts” about the authenticity of Mr Attanasio’s signed instructions. But Mr Mills told the Guardian he would also be producing notes of the instructions he received from the shipowner. This is the “clinching evidence” he referred to in an interview last week. The undated page of notes, which the Guardian has seen, sets out the flow of money in the way it was made. Mr Mills said it was written down in a book in which previous and subsequent entries were for July 15 and 21.

It’s not in dispute that Attanasio paid Mills two million dollars – or, for that matter, that Attanasio was corrupt. The question is whether Attanasio was previously subbed by Berlusconi, and whether the two million transfer was used so as to get a payment from Berlusconi to Mills indirectly. The signed letter from Attanasio seems like pretty good evidence for Mills’ version of the story. (Mills’ current version, that is: if he’s telling the truth now, it remains a mystery why he lied to both his own accountant and the Italian magistrates two years ago, particularly given that the effect of these lies was to incriminate both himself and Berlusconi.)

Anyway, here’s the background, from the Repubblica story referred to above. The story is describing a press conference at which Berlusconi released documents which purport to put him in the clear.

Berlusconi complains that on the 6th of March 2006 he requested a rogatoria [an international warrant – PJE] to obtain these documents, and that the ‘infamous’ magistrates refused his request. In fact the ‘unworthy’ magistrates served this rogatoria to the Bahamas a year ago, April 2005, and repeated the request in Decmeber 2005 and February 2006. The government of Perry Gladstone Christie has never replied.Berlusconi says he doesn’t know David Mills. However, on another occasion he admitted, “Perhaps I’ve shaken his hand at Arcore [Berlusconi’s residence – PJE]”. The loose-tongued English lawyer for his part admits to having proposed an offshore ‘treasury’ for the use of [Berlusconi’s company] Fininvest and having discussed this with Berlusconi “over the telephone”; worse, a statement by a consultant to Mills reveals that the lawyer met Berlusconi and his daughter in London.

Berlusconi swears “on his children’s lives” that he knew nothing of the money paid to Mills. It was Mills himself who confided in his accountant that he’d been given a gift of $600,000 dollars for having kept quiet, through many “tricky corners”, “the whole truth” in his two statements in court in Milan (1997 e 1998). Berlusconi reveals that it was a ship-owner, Diego Attanasio, who gave the money to Mills. This is the same get-out which Mills chose, desperate and short of options after a mysterious trip around the world in thirty days. His subsequent moves have been acrobatic. The English lawyer at first admitted having received “the gift” as a present from “the Doctor” [sadly, this is just another reference to Berlusconi – PJE]. He confirmed this statement, in the presence of his own lawyer, to the ‘infamous’ magistrates. Then he denied it, claiming that the money came from other clients. When they gave him the lie, Mills pulled the name of Attanasio out of the hat: “The $600,000 is part of a sum of $2,050,000, transferred on the account of Attanasio from the Bahamanian MeesPierson Bank on the 23rd of July 1997,” he said. Mills’ improvisations are maladroit. Diego Attanasio went on the attack: “I categorically deny having given any instructions, even indirectly, to the MeesPierson Bank…” He has a good argument: “… in the middle of July 1997 I was arrested on corruption charges and held in prison in Salerno…”. He raises an interesting possibility: “… I recall having given Mills power of attorney, as well as some signed bank drafts, the details left blank.”

The magistrates’ investigation will determine whether the documents distributed by Berlusconi come from this stock of blank bank drafts signed by the shipowner. Equally, sooner or later we will find out how and from whom Berlusconi’s people managed to obtain documents which the magistrates had been requesting for a year. Was it Mills who did Berlusconi a good turn, as he himself maintains? Or the government of the Bahamas? Or even London?

I particularly like those last three words. This isn’t just a matter of Old Labour class-hatred. (Not that I see that as a bad thing in itself. I’d love to hear Tessa Jowell interviewed by Mrs Merton: So, Tessa – may I call you Mrs Jowell? What first attracted you to the millionaire David Mills?) But this is more serious. It’s a story of corrupt finance and attempts to corrupt the judiciary, carried out by leading European politicians. Whatever we hear this afternoon, this one will run and run.

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