Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi joked Wednesday that he is "no saint," in his first public comments on his sex scandal since a news weekly released what it said were conversations between him and a prostitute.
Berlusconi has been entangled in scandal for months over his alleged encounters with young women. But the controversy took on new life this week when the left-leaning L'Espresso released tapes of the purported conversations at the conservative premier's Rome residence.
Berlusconi's lawyer has disputed the tapes' veracity.
"I'm no saint, by now you've figured that out," a smiling Berlusconi told an audience of business executives and politicians in northern Italy at the inauguration of a highway project.
"Let's hope that those working at Repubblica understand that, too," he added, taking a jab at the daily that has doggedly pursued the scandal story. Both La Repubblica and L'Espresso are owned by the same publishing group.
The 72-year-old leader also noted that "there are a lot of nice-looking girls around."
Berlusconi has denied he ever paid anyone for sex, and has called the allegations "trash" meant to smear him. Last month, a defiant Berlusconi said "that's who I am" and that is how Italians want him.
He appears to be right. The scandal has done little to dent his popularity at home and has not threatened the stability of his Cabinet — a sign of his remarkable resilience and Italians' indifference to the sexual foibles of the political class.
‘What would Italy do without us?’
Berlusconi signaled his confidence Wednesday, saying he expected to still be in power in 2012 when the highway is to be completed.
"We'll still be here," he said. "What would Italy do without us?"
Berlusconi was elected in 2008 to his third term. The next election, barring an early vote, is scheduled for 2013.
On Monday and Tuesday, L'Espresso released recordings of what it said was the night Berlusconi spent with the escort. The recordings include intimate conversations between the woman, Patrizia D'Addario, and a voice identified as Berlusconi's, both on Nov. 4 and the morning after.
The tapes also feature alleged conversations between D'Addario and a businessman accused of recruiting and paying young women to attend Berlusconi's parties.
D'Addario has said she recorded her encounters with the premier and turned the recordings over to prosecutors in the southern city of Bari as part of an investigation into the businessman.
She came forward because Berlusconi had reneged on a promise to help her out with a real estate problem she was having, she says.
While the voice heard on the tapes sounds like the premier's, The Associated Press has not independently verified that Berlusconi is the speaker.
Berlusconi's lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, said after the first recordings were released Monday that they were "without any merit, completely improbable and the fruit of invention." He warned that legal action will be taken against anyone who distributes them.
Thousands of photos?
Also on Wednesday, a photographer who took pictures of topless women at the premier's home that were later published by Spanish newspaper El Pais said he has some 5,000 more photos.
Antonello Zappadu said he took the photos between late 2007 and 2008 from the hills overlooking Villa Certosa, Berlusconi's estate in Sardinia. Berlusconi's lawyers have claimed invasion of privacy and the photos have been put under seal by prosecutors in Rome.
Zappadu did not disclose the contents of the photos in detail but said Berlusconi is not seen in embarrassing situations.