A high-end prostitute says she has proof she spent the night at Silvio Berlusconi's Rome residence after a party that allegedly featured the prime minister's wisecracks, his cabaret crooning and a bevy of sexy women.
Berlusconi denied the claim, but there are signs of trouble ahead for the Italy's longest-serving prime minister: Prosecutors are examining images Patrizia D'Addario allegedly took of his bedroom and telephone recordings of him allegedly sweet-talking her — and the Roman Catholic Church is warning the "limits of decency" have been breached.
A defiant Berlusconi — sometimes referred to as the "Teflon" prime minister for his ability to escape controversy — says he has nothing to be sorry about.
But the scandal engulfing Berlusconi over his purported fondness for young models and starlets shows no signs of letting up. With newspapers competing for the last tawdry detail, Italians are taking a new look at the life of the man they voted into power three times and finding a very different Berlusconi than his carefully manicured image.
On Wednesday, Berlusconi launched a new tourism campaign for Italy, saying the country needed to rehabilitate its image internationally because its reputation had been tarnished by his recent personal scandals and a garbage crisis in Naples last year.
The most recent accusations against the prime minister come just a few weeks before he hosts President Barack Obama and many of the world's leaders at a G-8 summit in earthquake stricken L'Aquila.
"There is nothing in my private life that I should apologize for," Berlusconi told the gossip magazine Chi, which he owns, in the issue on newsstands Wednesday.
"I have never paid a woman. I never understood what the satisfaction is when you are missing the pleasure of conquest," the 72-year-old premier was quoted as saying.
'Now I do the talking'
Until the interview, Berlusconi had simply dismissed as "garbage" and a smear campaign reports that an acquaintance of his had recruited three women, and paid two of them, to attend parties at his residences.
To break the silence and address the accusations directly, the premier chose a popular magazine that is part of his Mondadori publishing house.
On the cover, above a headline reading: "Now I do the talking," a smiling Berlusconi sits on a lawn, his one-year-old grandson at his side. In other photos inside, the premier is seen surrounded by his grandchildren and children, and in one, he's playing at the piano with grandson Alessandro, dressed in a sailor suit.
The photos offer a stark contrast with the image of Berlusconi depicted in recent weeks by Italian newspapers: a rich and powerful flirt who liked being surrounded by pretty women while he boasted of his visits to the White House, cracked jokes and sang songs.
"There must be limits," said Famiglia Cristiana, an influential Catholic magazine that is distributed in parishes across Italy. "Those limits of decency have been exceeded."
"Those who have power, even with wide popular mandate, cannot claim they are in ethics-free territory," the magazine said in an editorial this week.
Famiglia Cristiana was the second Catholic publication to criticize the premier. The newspaper of Italy's bishops conference, Avvenire, urged Berlusconi to respond to the accusations last week.
Wearing a wire?
The scandal began weeks ago when the premier's wife, Veronica Lario, announced she was divorcing him. At the time, she voiced outrage at his selection of young starlets and showgirls for European Parliament elections and condemned his attendance at a birthday party for an 18-year-old girl, to whom he gave a gold and diamond necklace.
The woman at the center of the current scandal, Patrizia D'Addario, described by her friends as a high-end prostitute from Bari, told Corriere della Sera newspaper that she was paid euro1,000 ($1,400) to attend a party in October 2008 at the premier's residence in Rome, and then returned Nov. 4 and stayed the night.
She told Corriere she wore a recording device during her time with Berlusconi — recordings that have been turned over to prosecutors in Bari. The prosecutors are investigating a local businessman, Giampaolo Tarantini, who is accused of recruiting and paying the women.
Corriere also reported that telephone taps also uncovered an escort ring catering to wealthy businessmen spending weekends in the posh Cortina alpine ski resort, but Berlusconi was not linked to that.
'I cannot remember'
"I have no memory of her. I didn't know her name and didn't remember her face," Berlusconi told Chi. "I see dozens and dozens of people every day for the most different reasons. I don't want to offend anybody, but obviously I cannot remember each of them."
Berlusconi claimed D'Addario was paid to make the allegations, which have spurred the Bari investigation. D'Addario has denied she was paid to mount a scandal.
D'Addario's friend, Barbara Montereale, told the left-leaning La Repubblica over the weekend that she, too, attended the Nov. 4 party. Corriere della Sera this week published what it said were photos taken by Montereale and another woman in a bathroom of Berlusconi's Rome residence that evening.
Montereale has also said she attended another party at Berlusconi's Sardinian villa in mid-January. For that party, Montereale said she received $1,400 from Tarantini and another envelope with cash from the premier himself after she confided she was having problems raising an infant alone. She stressed she wasn't a prostitute and didn't have sexual relations with the premier.
Called him 'Daddy'
In a subsequent interview, Montereale told Repubblica that during her stay at Berlusconi's Sardinian villa she saw many other girls, who she said appeared to be Eastern European by their accents.
"They were very familiar with the premier and all called him 'Daddy.' They were all jealous of each other and in competition with each other,'" Montereale was quoted as saying. She said at one point they all dressed up as "little Santas."
Both D'Addario and Montereale said they were offered candidacies in recent local elections in Bari with a party affiliated with Berlusconi's Freedom People's party, though neither won.
In an interview with Repubblica, Montereale showed off the gifts she said she had received from the premier — colorful pendants in the shape of turtles and butterflies, a flower-shaped ring and other trinkets.
Despite criticism at home and abroad that he is unfit to govern, Berlusconi appears to have kept his popularity virtually intact. His center-right forces have emerged victorious from EU elections earlier this month and a spate of local and provincial runoffs this past weekend.
Berlusconi was forced to resign after only a few months of his first term when a key coalition ally pulled out of the government, partially over a corruption scandal. So far his present alliance is sticking together.