Top-ranking Fininvest executive Marcello Dell’Utri and five execs at Fininvest intermediaries have been accused of falsifying balance sheets and financial fraud in a wide-ranging investigation of the Milan-based media group. Magistrates searched the group’s main offices in Milan Wednesday and confiscated stacks of documents.

Dell’Utri, who heads Fininvest’s advertising sales organization Publitalia, denied all charges in a three-hour meeting with magistrates Wednesday. But publicity from the investigation could damage former Fininvest president Silvio Berlusconi’s chances of being elected to Parliament in the March27 election as head of his conservative Forza Italia party.

The news broke on the day Berlusconi made his first campaign visit to Rome, where he shook hands with shop owners, students and housewives and later dined at the palace of aristocratic society dowager Elvira Pallavicini Rospigliosi with a group of right-wing Roman nobles.

Speaking with reporters outside the Pallavicini palace, Berlusconi called the investigation “an unprecedented case of political aggression.”

“It seems to me that the desire to intervene with an investigation like this in a delicate moment (prior to the elections) in order to influence the outcome of the vote is something completely unworthy of a civilized country,” he said.

News of the arrest warrants was leaked to the press before the documents were even signed by the district attorney, clearly indicating that many magistrates are well aware of the political implications of the investigation, which has been going on for months. There were no immediate arrests.

Little is known about the investigation except that it started when magistrates began digging into paperwork surrounding the purchase of soccer player Gigi Lentini’s contract by Berlusconi’s Milan team in spring 1992. It seems that the acquisition of Lentini (for 25 billion lire, which was the highest price ever paid in Italy) was legit, but magistrates suspect that part of the sum was paid from “black funds,” or undeclared earnings hidden from the tax authorities.

According to leaks from the Milan City Court, the magistrates are looking at alleged black funds totaling 10 billion lire covering 1990-1994. Three intermediaries are suspected of having supplied Fininvest with false invoices, and the four other execs under investigation (who haven’t been properly identified) are most likely to be managers of the above-mentioned intermediaries.