Questions raised over Berlusconi's link with Neapolitan model (18)


WOULD YOU buy a second-hand car from this man? Or, more precisely, would you want this man to educate your children? The man is media tycoon and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the man asking the second question is Dario Franceschini, leader of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party (PD).

On Thursday Berlusconi issued yet another denial of involvement with an 18-year-old model, telling reporters in Rome that if someone asked whether he had “a relationship, let’s say steamy or more than steamy, with an underage girl”, his answer would be: “Absolutely not.”

“I have sworn it on the life of my children and I said that I am aware that, if this were perjury, I would have to resign a minute later,” he said.

It seems that, no matter what he does these days, the Italian prime minister simply cannot keep his family either out of politics or off the front pages. At the beginning of this month, his wife, Veronica Lario, ignited a political bombshell when she announced that she wanted a divorce.

Not only did Mrs Berlusconi complain about the glamorous “starlet” candidates that her husband’s Freedom Party (PDL) intended to field in the European elections, but she also expressed her consternation at media reports that her 72-year-old husband had attended the 18th birthday party of Neapolitan Noemi Letizia.

Pointing out that he had failed to attend the 18th birthdays of the three children he had with her, Mrs Berlusconi said she did not want to be married to a man who “consorts with minors”.

Thus was born the caso Noemi which has seen the prime minister struggle to explain just how he came to attend the young woman’s 18th birthday party.

Mr Berlusconi even went on television to offer his own version of events, commandeering an edition of state broadcaster RAI’s evening current affairs programme, Porta A Porta, to explain that he had attended the party as a favour to her father, an old acquaintance.

The problem here is that no one can provide reliable evidence of any relationship between this ordinary Neapolitan family and Mr Berlusconi. Mr Letizia is a local government employee and small shop owner in the Secondigliano area of Naples.

Initial reports from Mr Berlusconi’s staff suggested that Noemi’s father was known to the prime minister because he had once worked as chauffeur to a former prime minister, the late Bettino Craxi, a long-time political ally and friend of Mr Berlusconi.

However, his son, Bobo Craxi, immediately issued a statement pointing out that Letizia had never worked for his father.

In an interview with Rome daily La Repubblica, Noemi’s former boyfriend Gino Flaminio offered an explanation.

Noemi had been ambitious to get started in showbusiness and had accordingly prepared a portfolio and CV which had been subsequently sent to various acting agencies. There, he claimed, she was spotted by senior journalist Emilio Fede, a faithful Berlusconi supporter and the chief news editor of one of his three commercial TV channels, Rete 4.

Fede had been looking for new talent for the channel, for female presenters for anything from the weather to news programmes.

Somehow, suggested the ex-boyfriend, Noemi’s portfolio had come to the attention of Berlusconi, who then rang her on her mobile phone. (He claimed to have listened in to some of the conversations and to have recognised the prime minister’s voice.)

Berlusconi, he said, had been paternal in his attitude, wanting to know what sort of studies Noemi was following. Flaminio went on to claim that the prime minister had invited Noemi and about 30 other girls to spend the new year holiday in one of his Sardinian villas.

Berlusconi’s supporters have questioned the validity of Flaminio’s testimony, pointing out that he has a criminal record. (He was given a suspended 2½-year sentence for the theft of a mobile phone). Others, from Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo to thousands of bloggers, have been less sceptical.

Hence, Dario Franceschini’s question, which prompted the angry reaction of all the Berlusconi children who claimed that he had been a good father and a man who had instilled “values” in all their lives.

However, Franceschini’s question will shortly face a far more serious test at the European ballot box.

If opinion polls are anything to go by, though, blog outrage, international press condemnation and even some (admittedly timid) Catholic Church disapproval will do nothing to dent the Berlusconi political machine.

For example, in reference to the recent Mills court judgment which saw his British former lawyer David Mills condemned for having committed perjury on behalf of the Berlusconi empire, Berlusconi this week offered his standard defence.

Speaking to the retailers confederation, Confesercenti, he said there were “subversive clots” within the judiciary. An immediate opinion poll found that more than 65 per cent agreed with him.