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Berlusconi pal vindicated in kickback probe

Silvio Berlusconi’s right-hand man Fedele Confalonieri was cleared of suspicion by Milan magistrates Wednesday in connection with alleged kickbacks to the Socialist Party several years ago.

Officials emphasized that no charges were being filed — after exaggerated reports in theMDINItalian press that the exec was under investigation for illegal party financing.

Magistrates at the Milan public prosecutor’s office said Confalonieri’s name was indeed included on a list of people now being investigated, but specified that his name ended up on the list due to a legal technicality.

The spiraling kickback probe, known as Operation Clean Hands, has implicated hundreds of key politicos and businessmen in the past year and shows no sign of a let-up.

Whether or not Fininvest — Berlusconi’s holding company — will be subject to future investigation remains an open question. Fininvest headquarters are now being searched for incriminating documents by the Finance police — as were those of its arch rival, pubcaster RAI, several months ago.

One thing is certain: The brouhaha over presumed corruption within the commercial broadcaster

has not helped Fininvest’s image at a time when it’s fighting off attacks from political and industrial forces to limit its dominant media position.

The bad publicity might also impact negatively on Fininvest’s planned stock market float of its publishing division early next year.

While it appears that Confalonieri himself is now off the hook, one of his assistants, Aldo Brancher, is still in jail in connection with a kickback paid to the Ministry of Health in return for an advertising spend for a public service AIDS campaign.

Brancher and his lawyers say the money paid to the Ministry was his, not Fininvest’s, and the incident involved his private ad company.

Under Italian law, Brancher can be kept in prison while the magistrates are investigating his case.

In the past, investigating magistrates have found that a stay in prison has been remarkably effective in making high-powered exex and party officials reveal information on corruption within corporations and ministries.

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