Already facing criticism over Italy's financial crisis and engulfed in a sex scandal, Premier Silvio Berlusconi might face another trial in Milan.
The latest storm surrounding Berlusconi centers on a 2005 banking scandal. A Milan judge said Thursday that Berlusconi has pushed for the publication in a newspaper owned by his family of wiretapped conversations that should have remained secret because of an ongoing investigation.
No decision has been made on whether to indict the premier. The final word rests with another magistrate in Milan, and no date on when that decision might come has been set.
But the latest judicial case mounted pressure on a premier who already faces four active legal cases and is politically weakened. Berlusconi's supporters called the move further proof that Milan magistrates are out to get the premier. His lawyer Niccolo Ghedini called the charge "absolutely incredible" in a country where wiretapped conversations are constantly leaked and published in the media.
The news comes as prosecutors conclude an investigation into the practices of a businessman accused of recruiting prostitutes and other women to attend Berlusconi parties.
Three separate trials
The premier is facing three separate trials on charges including corruption, tax fraud and accusations that he paid for sex with a minor. The sex trial resumes next month. A fourth case is at a preliminary phase.
The 74-year-old Berlusconi has always denied wrongdoing and insisted he is the victim of politically-driven magistrates intent on ousting him from power.
At the time of the scandal, Italian newspaper Il Giornale, owned by Berlusconi's family, published a conversation between a bank official and a political rival of Berlusconi.
The Milan judge, Stefania Donadeo, said Thursday that Berlusconi was made aware of this conversation, listened to it while it was still under wraps and pushed for its publication, thus violating the secrecy of the conversations, according to the court's document. Berlusconi listened to the conversation on Dec. 24, 2005, at his villa in Arcore, near Milan, the document says.
The judge said that Berlusconi reacted not with "disapproval but with satisfaction and gratefulness." She said Berlusconi had a political interest in wanting to publish a conversation that would damage a political adversary.
Italian newspapers are routinely filled with the transcripts of wiretapped conversations from ongoing probes. Milan prosecutors investigating the case had asked Donadeo to throw out the charges against Berlusconi.
But Donadeo rejected their request, and ordered them to formally ask for Berlusconi's indictment. She gave the prosecutors 10 days to make the indictment request, according to the document, and then a separate judge will decide on that request. The ANSA news agency said the prosecutors' request might be made as early as Friday.
In the case, Italian insurance company Unipol was bidding for Banca Nazionale del Lavoro against a foreign bidder.
Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by Berlusconi's brother Paolo, published a conversation between Piero Fassino, then the leader of the biggest center-left party opposed to Berlusconi, and Giovanni Consorte, then chairman of Unipol, in which Fassino was heard saying, "So, do we own a bank?"
The conversation did not suggest the politician committed a crime, but did allude to an inappropriate interference, and was seen as politically damaging a few months before national elections were to be held.
In a separate case, prosecutors in Bari said Thursday that they had concluded an investigation into the activities of a businessman who allegedly recruited prostitutes and other women to attend parties at Berlusconi's residences.
The businessman, Giampaolo Tarantini, has said he paid the women so he could win favor with the premier in hopes of improving his unrelated business dealings. He has insisted Berlusconi didn't pay the women and didn't know that he did. Tarantini is under investigation for allegedly aiding and abetting prostitution.
Berlusconi is not under investigation in the case. But the probe has proved embarrassing for the premier, with reports that the parties, known as "bunga bunga," involved scores of young girls, sometimes topless, drinking and dancing. Berlusconi has always maintained that parties at his villas were elegant affairs and has denied ever paying for sex with a woman.
Prosecutors said at least 30 women were invited to parties at Berlusconi's private residence in Rome, . A well-known actress was allegedly promised a chance to host a music festival in exchange for sex with the Italian leader, but she refused, the paper reported.
In yet another probe, Tarantini is also under investigation in Naples for allegedly extorting money from Berlusconi in exchange for Tarantini's cooperation in the probe over recruiting prostitutes. Berlusconi has denied being the victim of blackmail, and has so far refused being questioned by the magistrates, though he gave them a document to explain how he knew the businessman and his dealings with him.
The premier is also embattled in Rome, where he has bickered with his allies over austerity measures to clean up Italy's finances and stem a financial crisis. The austerity package was eventually passed by Parliament this week, but hundreds of demonstrators protested in Rome, clashing with police near Parliament.