Berlusconi has won two times at the polls in 1994 and 2001 despite a range of accusations of illicit business dealings hanging over him. He has never received a final guilty verdict in Italy's three-stage appeal process, though several cases were eventually shelved because the statute of limitations had expired. This time, prosecutors accuse the 69-year-old media mogul of ordering the payment in 1997 of some $600,000 to British lawyer David Mills ó a onetime business associate of Berlusconi's who helped the magnate set up offshore accounts ó in exchange for Mills' false testimony in two trials against Berlusconi. Indictments are also being sought against Mills. Both men deny the allegations, which must now be considered by a judge who decides if indictments should be brought.
Judicial battles much like his continued control of a billion-dollar media empire, his loose tongue in diplomatic circles and even his recent hair replacement surgery have helped set Berlusconi apart from most comparatively colorless Western leader. His supporters say the debonair, center-right politician has revolutionized the perennially gray world of Italian politics, carving out an influential role for his country on the world stage thanks to his rapport with the likes of Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair. His opponents, by sharp contrast, say Berlusconi puts democracy at risk with his myriad conflicts of interest and perennial corruption charges.
Still, Italians are likely to barely notice the latest courtroom tussle. In a country where guilt is always relative, politicians tend to stick around through even the thickest mud. And most voters have long ago made up their minds that Berlusconi is either a crook or the victim of blood-thirsty prosecutors who want to usurp power from a democratically elected leader. The timing, so close to Berlusconiís showdown with former European Commission President Romano Prodi, may actually help Berlusconi by convincing some of the relatively few undecided voters that there is indeed a political motive for the investigations.
There may actually be more of a fallout in Great Britain, where Mills has just recently separated from his wife, British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, and has lately appeared despondent as the pressure from the case has been building. It's a far cry from the always image-conscious Berlusconi, who would remind the lawyer that itís not what they say about you, itís how you good you look while they're saying it.