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Court says Mills took Berlusconi bribe

March 2, 2009

By Vincent Boland in Milan and Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: February 18

David Mills, the estranged husband of Tessa Jowell, the Olympics minister, was sentenced yesterday to 4½ years in jail over a $600,000 bribe from Silvio Berlusconi, now the Italian premier. Mr Mills, a lawyer, was convicted by a judge in Milan of accepting the bribe in return for giving false evidence in two legal cases against Mr Berlusconi, a billionaire media mogul, in the late 1990s.

Ms Jowell and Mr Mills used the money to repay a mortgage on their London house.

But the minister was cleared by Tony Blair, then prime minister, of breaching the ministerial code after explaining that she only became aware in 2004 that her husband had received money he “had reasonable grounds to believe was a gift”.

Ms Jowell split from her husband of 27 years in 2006, denying suggestions that the separation was politically motivated.

She said yesterday that she did not doubt her estranged husband’s innocence.

“This is a terrible blow for David,” she said.

However, lawyers in Milan said Mr Mills, a former tax lawyer who acted for Mr Berlusconi, was unlikely to serve any time in prison. By the time he has exhausted the Italian appeals process the maximum time limit allowed for sentencing might have expired: in this case, the so-called statute of limitations for the offence runs out next February.

Mr Mills, who was not in court, denied any wrongdoing and said he would appeal against the sentence. His defence lawyer called the case highly political.

Mr Berlusconi, who has often accused the Italian judiciary of a vendetta against him, will be acutely embarrassed by the verdict.

He had immunity in the case under a law passed after the media tycoon was returned to office as prime minister in 2008. The Italian constitutional court is examining the constitutionality of the law. Should it rule against immunity for Mr Berlusconi, his trial, in which he was originally a co-defendant, would start again.

News of the guilty verdict broke as Mr Berlusconi was meeting Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, in Rome. He has denied wrongdoing and made no comment yesterday.

Aides to Mr Berlusconi have treated the case as an annoying hindrance to the more important business of running a government and further justification of the immunity given to him by parliament.

Politicians called on Mr Berlusconi to account for himself in parliament.

More important for Mr Berlusconi in the short-term was the news yesterday that Walter Veltroni, leader of the opposition Democratic party, had resigned after the party’s defeat in Sardinia’s regional election on Monday.

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