Berlusconi cleared of false accounting in 1980s business deal

A Milan court on Wednesday cleared former Premier Silvio Berlusconi of a charge of false accounting related to the sale of the SME state food conglomerate in the 1980s, before the media magnate entered politics.

The court deliberated just five minutes before clearing Berlusconi _ who was part of a group of magnates trying to buy SME _ because the allegations did not constitute false accounting under changes to the law made in 2002, when Berlusconi was in power.

At the time the law was passed, critics said it was tailor-made to help Berlusconi, who has faced several false bookkeeping charges relating to his business deals over the years.

Berlusconi is pressing for early elections that he hopes will return him to power after the fall of Romano Prodi's center-left government last week.

Last year, Berlusconi was acquitted of corruption and other charges relating to the SME sale.

The false accounting charge was the last relating to the sale of SME, and was separated from the rest of the case because the court sought to determine if the Italian law downgrading false accounting was consistent with European norms.

"The verdict has come six years late," said Berlusconi's lawyer Nicolo Ghedini. "The trial was suspended in 2002, to go to the court of justice, which found that the Italian law was correct."

But communist lawmaker Giovanni Russo Spena said the acquittal was meaningless because the law that made it possible had been "made-to-order" to suit Berlusconi's needs.

He noted that Prodi's government had been working to undo the law before it collapsed last week, and warned that if Berlusconi's forces win any new election "false accounting will become a national sport."

Prosecutors alleged that the movement of funds in the period from 1986-89 among subsidiaries of Fininvest, Berlusconi's holding company, had not been declared on the general accounts.

Berlusconi has said that he got involved in the deal at the request of Bettino Craxi, premier at the time, and only to serve the nation's best interest. In a rare court appearance years ago, Berlusconi told the court that, since the company was about to be sold off too cheaply, he stepped in.

Long plagued by judicial troubles linked to his media empire, Berlusconi has always denied wrongdoing, maintaining that he is the victim of a political vendetta orchestrated by left-leaning magistrates.

In previous cases, Berlusconi has either been acquitted or cases have been dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. The changes to the false bookkeeping law partly decriminalized the charge and reduced the statute of limitations for which it could be prosecuted.

(Published by AP, January 31, 2008)

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