Berlusconi's Fininvest ordered to pay rival €560m in publishing legal battle


EMBATTLED ITALIAN prime minister Silvio Berlusconi suffered another setback at the weekend when a court ruled that his family holding company must pay €560 million in compensation to a conglomerate controlled by the publisher of daily La Repubblica.

Saturday’s ruling relates to litigation engendered by a bitter boardroom battle between the De Benedetti and Berlusconi groups at the end of the 1980s for control of Mondadori, Italy’s largest publishing house.

Upholding previous rulings, Saturday’s decision by a Milan appeals court argued that Mr Berlusconi’s Fininvest group gained control of Mondadori by bribing a judge about €200,000 in a previous, decisive court case.

In 2007, Judge Vittorio Metta and Mr Berlusconi’s lawyer, former defence minister Cesare Previti, received definitive sentences for “corruption of judicial officials”. This latest judgment observes that Mr Berlusconi “is co-responsible for the corruption”.

The prime minister was originally a defendant in the Mondadori case, but charges against him were dropped in 2001, thanks to the statute of limitations ruling.

Mr Berlusconi made no public comment, but his daughter Marina, chairwoman of both Mondadori and the Berlusconi holding company Fininvest, was highly critical.

“This is yet another scandalous episode of outright aggression against my father, an aggression that has been going on for years, on all fronts and with all means, including business and economic means . . . We don’t owe them a single euro, this is an expropriation.”

In contrast, the conglomerate that benefits from the ruling, CIR, headed by entrepreneur Carlo de Benedetti, expressed its satisfaction. The ruling, it said, “confirms one more time that in 1991 CIR was denied control of Mondadori thanks to the corruption of Judge Vittorio Metta . . . this [corruption] was organised on behalf of and in the interests of Fininvest”.

Former investigating magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the Italy of Values party, rejected criticism by leading figures in Mr Berlusconi’s People Of Freedom party that the ruling was highly “political”.

“It’s a waste of time if Berlusconi and his supporters try to say that this is a political issue. Here we are dealing with very seriously corrupt behaviour . . . It is an entirely Italian anomaly that on the day that he is found guilty of falsifying a court case and bribing a judge, he doesn’t resign.”

Political commentators now expect the prime minister to “invent” legislation that would suspend payment of the damages.

Last week Mr Berlusconi provoked a crisis when he and his advisers tried to add a “Save Fininvest” clause to a €47 billion austerity package, due to come before parliament shortly. This would have allowed Fininvest to suspend the payment of damages of more than €20 million.

Faced with widespread opposition, especially from government allies the Northern League, Mr Berlusconi withdrew the measure.

Separately European Council president Herman Van Rompuy has summoned European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso to an emergency meeting in Brussels this morning, amid speculation about the Italian economy.