Italo vice probe targets TV

“Airwave kickbacks” is the new buzzword racing through the Italian broadcast scene, as anti-corruption investigators from Operation Clean Hands probe possible irregularities in the awarding of national TV licenses two years ago.

On Monday Silvio Berlusconi, owner of media conglomerate Fininvest, appeared voluntarily before Rome investigating magistrate Maria Cordova to explain the relationship between his three private TV webs and the telecommunications ministry, which assigned Italy’s highly contested airwave frequencies in 1991.

After his meeting with the judge, Berlusconi told journalists he had “clarified … the total regularity of our operation.”

On Tuesday Cordova was set to hear testimony from six others, including Adriano Galliani, CEO of the Fininvest company Reteitalia.

Investigations focus on the confessions of 34-year-old “golden boy” Davide Giacalone, currently a highly paid consultant for Fininvest.

From 1989 to 1991, Giacalone was the right-hand man of Oscar Mammi, then the Republican minister of the telecom ministry. Giacolone was instrumental, especially on a technical level, in drafting the TV frequency plan, which legalized commercial television and Berlusconi’s three national webs.

Giacalone’s legal problems are manifold. Arrested on May 18, he confessed to magistrates that he received envelopes full of kickback money from computer suppliers on behalf of his Republican party.

Put under house arrest, he was jailed May 30 for a second time on corruption charges. This time Giacalone stands accused of taking a 1.2 billion lire ($ 800, 000) bribe from the consultancy firm Federal Trade Misure, money meant as partial payment to bag the company a $ 20 million-plus contract for technical assistance at the ministry. When he left the ministry in April 1991, Giacalone went to work for Fininvest, where he earned consultancy fees of $ 300,000-plus in 1992. In the eyes of his accusers, this large fee is a thank-you for helping Fininvest on the license law.

Berlusconi denies any connection between Giacalone’s hiring and his previous work at the ministry. “We have had perfect relations with Giacalone,” said Berlusconi, affirming that Giacalone’s Fininvest contract was stipulated “long” after he left the ministry. Berlusconi said he considered Giacalone an expert in the fine points of TV legislation.

Fininvest officials have always said theyweren’t the big winners in the license assignments, as is commonly argued, but its victims.

“With the TV law we lost 2,000 billion lire in income,” Berlusconi said hyperbolically in an irate, 40-minute on-air phone call to RAI-3’s Monday night soccer show.