As I wrote on Sunday, the final text of the budget bill had not been sent to President Napolitano so we didn’t know some of the details.
Yesterday the bill was finally published and the reason for Tremonti’s modesty was made clear. Once again and in a blatantly gross way, Berlusconi is using the government to protect his personal interests.
Hidden in the folds of the bill are a couple of apparently innocuous additions to the Civil Code. On page 105 (out of 117), Art. 37, clause 22, subsection b suspends payment of damages in civil cases after the appeal judgement when the sum is more than €20m. It just happens that in a few days time, there will be the verdict in the civil action between Carlo De Benedetti and Berlusconi. In the court of first instance, the judge awarded De Benedetti €750m. The appeal judgement is expected to reduce this to around €500m. The sneak clause, if passed would suspend payment of damages until the third and last level of appeal (which only deals with questions of law); it would save Berlusconi half a billion euros for a few years at least.
However deeply buried, the clause has not stayed hidden for long. The storm broke this morning with ministers falling over themselves to say they knew nothing about the clause. Starting with Tremonti himself who apparently knew nothing about it; he cancelled a press conference this morning allegedly because of a thunderstorm but no one believes that. Berlusconi’s lawyer, Niccolò Ghedini has said he did not write it and foreign minister Frattini who often acts as Berlusconi’s spokesmen has also denied knowledge.
The Northern League ministers have also said they knew nothing about the clause.
Senior magistrates have suggested that the clause might well be unconstitutional
Even moderate Catholic papers like the bishops’ Avvenire have condemned the move (along with the more leftwing Famiglia Cristiana).
The bone of contention is that after Berlusconi’s Fininvest paid judges in order to allow them to take over De Benedetti’s Mondadori (Italy’s biggest publisher) 20 years ago and after criminal convictions, De Benedetti sought damages and won. The civil case is the result of crimes which have already been dealt with.
Unless the government withdraws the bill, the next move has to be Napolitano’s, a hot potato that he presumably would rather not have on his desk.
The episode shows an arrogance which is exceptional even for one not known for his modesty. Either he thinks that he can hoodwink ministers, allies and the rest of Italy or he is so desperate that he doesn’t care. Either way, it’s not a pretty picture.