Berlusconi `off the Hook' over Corruption Cases

Article excerpt

OPPOSITION MPs and magistrates yesterday claimed the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, had saved himself from jail on corruption cases after the parliament - dominated by his right-wing House of Freedom coalition - passed a law to decriminalise false- accounting practices.

Such practices are often used by company directors to conceal fraud.

The bill, which was passed to cries of "shame, shame" from the opposition benches, wipes out years of work by investigating magistrates on hundreds of cases of corporate financial misdoings. These will include, according to opposition politicans, three cases that involve Mr Berlusconi. "This bill is tailor-made for Berlusconi," the left-wing opposition politician Luciano Violante said.

The bill will automatically stop most investigations for false company accounting after four and half years, and all of them after seven and a half years. It will mean that the practice is only an offence if the company is quoted on the stock exchange, and only then if individuals can prove they have suffered personal damage.

The three cases in which Mr Berlusconi was found guilty - although he is appealing against the verdicts - involve two off- shore financial companies and the AC Milan football team. All three are holdings belonging to his company, Fininvest, which is also the major shareholder of Mr Berlusconi's television company, Mediaset.

There are other allegations against the media magnate, such as links to the Mafia, but these have not been proved.

Under current Italian law, which will now change, false accounting was a serious offence punishable by up to five years in prison. False accounting can be used to hide financial irregularities such as illegal cash transfers from offshore companies and bribery.

Because of the length of time investigations can take, and because of Italy's complicated appeals procedure, company directors can have cases hanging over them for years. …