Italy's Berlusconi Swipes at Prodi in Graft Trial
Monday, May 5, 2003; 11:05 AM
By Giada Zampano
MILAN, Italy (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi defended himself on Monday against corruption charges that could threaten his hold on power and took a swipe at EU Commission chief Romano Prodi for his role in the landmark case.
The billionaire prime minister, who says he is the victim of a politically motivated witch-hunt by Milan judges, told a court in the city he acted in the state's best interest in the 1985 privatisation deal that led to the graft charges.
Berlusconi is the first sitting Italian prime minister to appear at his own trial. If he is convicted, the case could spark a constitutional crisis in Italy, which assumes the European Union's rotating presidency on July 1 for six months.
Berlusconi and four others are accused of bribing judges to prevent the sale of food and catering company SME to a rival entrepreneur. The center-right premier denies the allegations.
The trial stems from a plan to sell SME by state holding company IRI, at the time run by Prodi before he became prime minister at the head of a center-left coalition.
Berlusconi said Prodi had reached a closed-door deal with a group led by left-wing industrialist Carlo De Benedetti, side-stepping IRI's board.
"It's scandalous that directors of IRI and the board were unaware of the agreement," Berlusconi said in his hour-long court address, calling the deal a "gift" for De Benedetti.
Prodi is now president of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, and is thought to be keen eventually to return to Italian politics in the center-left camp opposed to Berlusconi.
Prodi told reporters in his hometown of Bologna before Berlusconi spoke: "I'm not worried. This is not my trial."
"RUMORS OF BRIBES"
The original plan to sell SME to a consortium led by food group Buitoni was eventually scrapped by the government amid allegations the agreed price of $230 million was too low.
De Benedetti turned to the courts to have the original sale agreement upheld. But the appeal was rejected by a judge who is now accused of taking the alleged bribes.
Addressing a packed, sweltering courtroom, Berlusconi said the late socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi asked him to bid for SME to prevent a "plundering" that would damage the state.
"He personally asked me to make an offer higher than the one in the contract with De Benedetti," Berlusconi said, adding that Giuliano Amato, who later served as center-left premier, had followed the issue in 1985 and should be called as a witness.
The prime minister said that at the time of the SME sale there were "rumors of bribes paid to a section of the main governing party," the Christian Democrats.
Berlusconi and partners including the world's biggest pasta maker Barilla and Nutella chocolate spread maker Ferrero put forward a rival bid for SME. In the end it was split up and sold for a higher price than De Benedetti's consortium had offered.
De Benedetti's holding company CIR said in a statement that his deal for SME was set at a fair price and accused Berlusconi of blocking the accord to damage CIR.
Berlusconi's swipes at Prodi, De Benedetti and Amato have raised the stakes in the highly politicized trial.
The prime minister has threatened to call snap elections if convicted. That could spark a constitutional crisis, pitting a convicted prime minister against the judiciary in a de facto referendum on the court case.
Over the past decade, Berlusconi has been tried in several cases connected to alleged corruption in his business empire. In many of the cases he has been acquitted or had charges dropped because of the statute of limitations. Other cases are ongoing.
Over opposition objections, he is pressing parliament to reinstate immunity from prosecution for leading state figures.
Immunity from prosecution for politicians was ended during the "Clean Hands" investigations that swept through Italy's political elite in the 1990s and toppled Craxi's government.