February 17, 2009 6:48 pm

David Mills sentenced in Italy bribe case

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David Mills, a British lawyer, was sentenced on Tuesday to four and a half years in prison for accepting a bribe of $600,000 from Silvio Berlusconi, now the Italian prime minister.

A judge in Milan convicted Mr Mills (pictured below), the estranged husband of Tessa Jowell, the UK Olympics minister, of accepting the bribe in return for giving false evidence in two legal cases against Mr Berlusconi, a billionaire media mogul, in the late 1990s.

The judgement is an acute embarrassment for Mr Berlusconi, who has often accused the Italian judiciary of a vendetta against him. He had immunity in the case under a law he passed after being returned to office as prime minister in 2008.

The Italian constitutional court is examining the constitutionality of the law. Should it rule against immunity for Mr Berlusconi then his trial, in which he was originally a co-defendant, would start again.

Lawyers in Milan said Mr Mills, a former tax lawyer who acted for Mr Berlusconi, was unlikely to serve any time in prison as by the time he has exhausted the Italian appeals process, the maximum time limit allowed for sentencing may have expired. In this case, the so-called statute of limitations for the offence runs out next February.

Mr Mills, who was not in court, denied any wrongdoing. His defence lawyer called the case highly political.

Ms Jowell said she did not doubt her estranged husband’s innocence. “This is a terrible blow for David,” she said in a statement.

Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, could also be put on the spot by the verdict as Ms Jowell and Mr Mills had used the money to repay a mortgage on their London house. By coincidence, Mr Brown is due in Rome tomorrow for talks with Mr Berlusconi on the G20 and G7 summits they are hosting respectively.

Ms Jowell said she only became aware in August 2004 that her husband had received money he ”had reasonable grounds to believe was a gift”. Mr Mills initially admitted accepting the money as a loan or a gift but later retracted the statement.

News of the guilty verdict broke as Mr Berlusconi was meeting Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, in Rome. He has denied wrong-doing and made no comment yesterday.

Aides to Mr Berlusconi have treated the case as an annoying hindrance to the more important business of running a government and further justification of the immunity given to him by parliament.

More important for Mr Berlusconi in the short term was the news yesterday that Walter Veltroni, leader of the opposition Democratic party, had resigned after the party’s defeat in Sardinia’s regional election on Monday.

Politicians called on Mr Berlusconi to account for himself in parliament.

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