Berlusconi may face conflict of interest

Italy's parliament mulls new legislation

New conflict-of-interest legislation being mulled by Italy’s parliament could force Silvio Berlusconi to choose between his political career and direct control of his Mediaset TV empire.

The proposed law was put on the parliamentary agenda Friday and, if passed, would force any Italian political candidate with more than E15 million ($20 million) to place these assets in a blind trust before taking office. Berlusconi is estimated by Forbes to be worth $12 billion.

The crucial proposed bill comes 13 years after Berlusconi, then just a media mogul and entrepreneur, threw his hat in Italy’s political ring, becoming the country’s prime minister for the first time in 1994.

Berlusconi was subsequently appointed prime minister a second time in 2001 and headed Italy’s most durable postwar government until he lost April 2006 elections by a very narrow margin.

He is currently leader of the center-right opposition coalition.

After making Berlusconi’s conflict of interest a centerpiece of its 2006 campaign, the current center-left government headed by Romano Prodi is attempting to introduce the blind trust bill one year after taking power.

But because Prodi has the slimmest majority in modern Italian history — just two votes in the Senate — the bill is expected to face a tough road in parliament.

“Nobody can demand that I hand over my fortune to a total stranger,” complained a belligerent Berlusconi in several TV interviews over the weekend.

The center-left “just want to eliminate me from politics, because they know what a threat I am to them,” he added.

Prodi countered: “Nobody in the U.S. would claim that a blind trust law is designed to eliminate a political adversary. These laws exist everywhere.”

Besides the three-channel Mediaset, which is Italy’s top commercial web, Berlusconi also controls top Italo publisher Mondadori, leading film outfit Medusa, insurance and investment giant Medliolanum and the A.C. Milan soccer club.

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