By Dow Jones Business News, October 23, 2013, 01:15:00 PM EDT
MILAN--An Italian court Wednesday ordered conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi to stand trial on corruption charges
for having allegedly bribed a senator to switch political parties, a move that contributed to the fall of a center-left
government in 2008.
The new trial, slated to start Feb. 11 in Naples, is the latest of many legal troubles for Mr. Berlusconi and adds to
mounting questions about the 77-year-old media mogul's political future.
Although facing a two-year bar from holding public office following a tax-fraud conviction, the three-time former
premier still heads the center-right People of Freedom party--whose support Prime Minister Enrico Letta depends on for
the survival of his fragile government.
In the new trial, Naples prosecutors allege that Mr. Berlusconi--who was in the opposition at the time-- paid 3
million euros ($4.1 million) to then-senator Sergio De Gregorio, whose small party was supporting the center-left
government at the time, led by Romano Prodi.
Prosecutors allege that aim of the payments, made in 2007 and 2008, was to convince Mr. De Gregorio, who is from
Naples, to throw his support to Mr. Berlusconi's center-right party, thereby eroding Mr. Prodi's razor-thin majority in
Mr. Berlusconi denies the charges of corruption, but admits having paid EUR1 million to Mr. De Gregorio's party in
2007. He said that the sum was a political contribution given in exchange for Mr. De Gregorio's support. Mr. Berlusconi
maintains that this payment was legal.
Prosecutors allege that Mr. Berlusconi paid another EUR2 million as a bribe to convince Mr. De Gregorio to withdraw
his support from Mr. Prodi's government. This was allegedly given to Mr. De Gregorio in cash by an associate, Valter
Lavitola, prosecutors say.
Mr. Berlusconi denies having paid the EUR2 million. He and Mr. Lavitola will stand trial together.
Mr. De Gregorio has admitted to having received the EUR3 million bribe and earlier this year was given a 20-month
suspended sentence, meaning he will serve no jail time provided he exhibits good behavior for five years.
During a preliminary hearing Wednesday, Mr. Lavitola admitted having given money to Mr. De Gregorio but denied knowing
that the money was a bribe. He claimed the sum was related to other businesses and was unconnected to Mr. Berlusconi,
said Mr. Lavitola's lawyer, Guido Iaccarino.
Mr. De Gregorio became the first of a number of senators to abandon the center-left coalition led by Mr. Prodi-- a
longtime nemesis of Mr. Berlusconi. The Prodi government fell in February 2008 and Mr. Berlusconi won the subsequent
election, serving then as prime minister until 2011.
The latest charges compound a series of judicial and electoral setbacks Mr. Berlusconi has suffered this year.
Inconclusive elections in February left his center-right party as the junior partner in a coalition led by Mr. Letta
from the center-left. Mr. Berlusconi led an aborted effort last month to bring down Mr. Letta, ostensibly over a tax
increase, but reversed course at the last minute after some of his own allies refused to go along, illustrating the
cracks that are starting to emerge in his leadership.
In June, he was sentenced to seven years in jail and banned for life from public office for having paid for sex with
an underage woman and having abused his power by trying to cover up the relationship. Mr. Berlusconi, who denies those
charges, has appealed.
Mr. Berlusconi is also facing the fallout from his conviction in August on tax fraud charges, a conviction that could
cost him his Senate seat. The Senate's decision on whether to oust him will come in November or December.
Mr. Berlusconi was also handed a four-year jail term, which was later cut to one year under a law meant to ease jail
overcrowding. He won't serve any time behind bars, however, because he's over 70. He will instead serve community
service in the coming months.
The conservative leader has pleaded innocent on all charges against him, insisting that magistrates are conducting a
witch-hunt to oust him from politics.
Write to Manuela Mesco at email@example.com
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