Wiretapped telephone conversations between Silvio Berlusconi and a businessman charged with recruiting female escorts for his allegedly sex-fuelled parties were made public Saturday, providing the most vivid picture of the prime minister’s debauchery and raising fresh suspicions that he just might be the most hedonistic ruler in the region since Caligula.
The transcript of the telephone calls between Berlusconi and Gianpaolo Tarantini, a previously unknown businessman from southern Italy, are part of an investigation by magistrates looking into the alleged prostitution ring surrounding the prime minister, who joked in one of the calls to act as "prime minister in his spare time."
Berlusconi, who is 5 feet 5 inches tall, is heard asking Tarantini "not to bring tall [girls], as we are not tall."
In another call, he boasts to "having been with eight [girls] in one night, even though I could have had eleven."
At one point, he reveals that there are 40 women staying in his house who just won't leave. In many others, he asks excitedly who the businessman will bring him next.
Most of wiretaps reveal inappropriate behaviour more suited to an over-excited teenager than a 74-year old leader of the third biggest country in Europe.
They led to the arrest of Tarantini, among others, on charges of aiding and abetting prostitution.
The calls also raise fresh claims of Berlusconi’s abuse of office after he allowed Tarantini and a number of female "friends" to use a presidential plane to join him while on an official trip to Milan.
The list of women mentioned in the telephone calls, most of whom attended the parties, looks out of Italy's "Who's Who" in the entertainment business: Actresses, television starlets, aspiring weather-girls and glamour models have all gravitated to the prime minister in a system of apparently shameless patronage, looking for a shot in the limelight in exchange of sexual favors.
In one of the calls Berlusconi tells Tarantini, who agreed to bring five girls with him for dinner in one of the prime minister's residences, that he will also invite the president of his film distribution company and a director of RAI, Italy's state channel, so that "the girls feel there's someone there who have the power to give them work."
Tarantini has so far admitted to having paid scores of beautiful women to attend the prime minister's parties at his various mansions, but always denied Berlusconi knew they were sex workers, claiming he believed they were "just friends."
Friends with benefits, the magistrates claim.
'Family in need' gets $1 million?
Magistrates in Naples are also looking into regular payments that Berlusconi made to Tarantini, amounting to up to $1 million.
Investigators believe they were part of an extortion plan by the businessman in exchange of his silence.
But Berlusconi claims he gave the money to Tarantini to help "a family in need."
While officially the prime minister is the victim of the alleged blackmailing, he believes the magistrates are in fact out to get him, and has so far declined the offer to provide testimony.
On Sept. 13, the day he was scheduled to meet the magistrates, he flew to Brussels for last-minute talks with European leaders over the financial crisis, prompting accusations he was fleeing justice and using Italy's economy downfall as an excuse to his advantage.
The magistrates have now given him a deadline of Sept. 18 to give his testimony.
Should he fail to meet them, they said they will ask parliament for permission to have him brought to them by force — that is, via police escort.
Berlusconi has recently tried to clamp down on the use of wire-taps by the authorities and their publication, claiming that "80 percent of Italians phone conversations are being listened to," but Giorgio Napolitano, Italy's president, stopped him in his tracks by forcing him to take the "Gag law" off the parliamentary agenda.
Italians must have breathed a sigh of relief.
In these harsh economic times, the public ridicule of their prime minister is seen by many as payback for the austerity measures he recently introduced.
Faced with tough times ahead, Italians looking for amusement need to look no further than the news stands.
The transcripts published in Italian newspapers look like something right out of the pages of a book by an over-imaginative novelist describing the downfall of an emperor with, in some cases literally, no clothes.