Berlusconi reeling in inquries

Solon faces probe on pic rights deal

This article was updated on June 15, 2003.

MILAN — Italian media tycoon and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is again being investigated by prosecutors. New inquiry is based on suspected tax fraud and false bookkeeping in the acquisition of TV rights for U.S. movies between 1994 and 1996 involving Berlusconi’s personal holding company, Fininvest, and his broadcaster Mediaset.

The news was leaked to the Italian press after Milan prosecutors asked Italy’s Ministry of Justice to prepare a formal request to U.S. authorities for assistance.

Milan prosecutors Fabio De Pasquale and Alfredo Robledo allege that Mediaset acquired TV rights to U.S. movies through offshore companies Century One and Universal One, both allegedly controlled by Fininvest. The offshore companies resold the rights to Mediaset at a much higher price, allegedly allowing the private broadcaster to post illegal tax benefits of about $100 million.

Berlusconi has not commented but his lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, said he had not been informed of the new probe and insisted, “Berlusconi has had no role in Mediaset since 1993, and he is innocent.”

Fininvest and Mediaset issued a joint statement Friday condemning the inquiry.

The two media groups claimed the offshore companies did not belong to the Berlusconi group and the prices paid for the TV rights were “even lower than market prices.”

Berlusconi is already on trial in Milan on corruption charges involving the sale of a state-owned food corporation in the 1980s. In the last few years he has faced several criminal cases but he has either been acquitted or his convictions have been reversed on appeal or annulled because of the statute of limitations. Berlusconi has always denied all charges saying he was the victim of left-wing magistrates and communists.

The new probe comes at a delicate moment, as Italy prepares to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union next month.