By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
LONDON, Feb. 17 -- An Italian court convicted a British lawyer Tuesday of accepting a $600,000 bribe in exchange for false testimony in corruption trials involving Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The conviction is a political embarrassment for Berlusconi, a billionaire businessman, whose government last year passed a law that gives him immunity from prosecution. The case has also generated publicity in Britain, where the lawyer, David Mills, is well known as the estranged husband of Tessa Jowell, a member of Parliament and the minister in charge of the 2012 Olympics.
Jowell separated from Mills in 2006, after the bribery allegations surfaced. Prosecutors said the money went to help pay off the couple's mortgage.
Jowell was cleared of any wrongdoing after an inquiry in Britain, but the allegations against her husband have hurt her politically, many analysts said. She was a member of the cabinet under then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Italian prosecutors had argued that Mills, 64, who advised Berlusconi on offshore tax havens, accepted money in return for not revealing damaging details about the prime minister's finances in two trials in the late 1990s.
In Milan on Tuesday, Judge Nicoletta Gandus sentenced Mills to 4 1/2 years in prison and criticized him for not showing up for the court's verdict.
"I am innocent. This is a highly political case," Mills said in a statement afterward. "The judges have not yet given their reasons for their decision, so I cannot say how they dealt with the prosecutor's own admission that he had no proof."
He added, "I am hopeful that the verdict and sentence will be set aside on appeal and am told that I will have excellent grounds."
In Italy, many analysts expressed doubt that Mills would ever go to prison because appeals could drag out the case beyond February 2010, when the statute of limitations expires on the offense prosecutors said occurred in February 2000.
In London, Jowell told reporters, "This is a terrible blow to David, and, although we are separated, I have never doubted his innocence."
Mills's conviction adds to the pressure on Berlusconi from critics.
Italian politician and former prosecutor Antonio di Pietro told reporters after the verdict, "In a normal country, the prime minister would have already signed his resignation" over such allegations.
Di Pietro said that if Mills received a bribe, someone gave it to him. "This means that there is both a corrupted person and a corruptor," he said.
The criminal charges stemmed from a letter Mills sent to a British accountant in 2004 in which he said the $600,000 payment came from a "Mr. B." He wrote that he had not lied in his testimony but had "turned some very tricky corners, to put it mildly," and had "kept Mr. B out of a great deal of trouble that I would have landed him in had I said all I knew."
Mills initially admitted having received money from Berlusconi "in recognition" of his testimony but later said the money had come from someone else.
Berlusconi has denied making any such payment to Mills.
The government headed by Berlusconi, who has been the subject of long-running corruption trials, proposed the hotly debated law granting legal immunity to the most senior politicians. Supporters argued that the law would allow top officials to do their jobs free of legal distractions.