On trial for his relationship with 17-year-old Ruby Rubacuori, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may be facing real trouble for the first time since he started re-writing the countryâ€™s laws to suit him. But heâ€™s not going down without a fight. Drawing on official wiretaps of Berlusconiâ€™s girls, alleged procurers, and cronies, Evgenia Peretz (with Federico Rampini) gets an eye-popping picture of nights of â€œbunga bungaâ€ parties in the basement disco of â€œPapi Silvio,â€ as well as of the perverted political and legal systems he has created.
The emperor Caligula is said to have made his horse a senator. Pope Alexander VI made his illegitimate teenage son an archbishop. In Italy today, Silvio Berlusconi has given the post of a regional deputy for Lombardy (Italyâ€™s wealthiest and most populous region) to Nicole Minetti, a 26-year-old super-babe currently charged with procuring prostitutes for the prime minister. They met a year and a half ago, when she was a dental hygienist in training and had just finished a stint as a velina (showgirl) on one of the three television channels Berlusconi owns, a job that required her to wear a micro-mini Catholic-schoolgirl skirt and flash her butt in front of the camera. She had civil servant written all over her.
Today, as evidenced by her grand entrance into the Park Hyatt hotel in Milan, sheâ€™s upgraded the uniform to suit her new positionâ€”oversize black sunglasses, tight jeans, open-toed snakeskin stilettos, enormous bored pout, two cell phones, and an entourage. Less Britney Spears, you might say, more Heidi Fleiss. As a member of the regional government, she receives 12,000 euros ($17,000) a month. Asked what are the areas in Italian life that need the most attention right now, she widens her eyes, pushes out her lips, and shrugs off the question as absurd: â€œI think Italyâ€™s a great place to live in.â€¦ Can I just go to the bathroom for a minute?â€ She goes to the bathroom, summons one of her handlers for an emergency conference, then returns to the table to answer the question more fully: â€œItâ€™s a lovely place to live. Thatâ€™s because of the Berlusconi government. Heâ€™s doing a great job for our country.â€
If itâ€™s hard to say what Minetti has been working on policy-wise, maybe itâ€™s because, if Italian prosecutors are correct, sheâ€™s had her hands full finding young women for the prime minister, managing their housing, and escorting them to his â€œbunga bungaâ€ parties, which include striptease and light fetish and lesbian action, not to mention alleged hookups with â€œPapi Silvioâ€ involving the exchange of money and gifts. â€œA harem,â€ as one paid escort described it. â€œTwenty women for one man â€¦ just one man with the right to copulate and that was the prime minister.â€
â€œThey were happy dinners,â€ insists Minetti, as if we Americans simply donâ€™t know how to have fun. â€œThey werenâ€™t serious dinners, where everyone is sitting and eating and not talking.â€ Instead, Berlusconi, a former cruise-ship crooner, captivated guests with his singing in French and his many tales. â€œHe has thousands of things to tell, his stories, and how he got to where he is, and he can speak of everything. Heâ€™s fascinating.â€ So what if he might have gone to bed with them at the end of the evening? So what if some girls got envelopes of money after the parties? So what if he bought them jewelry and paid for their apartments? Itâ€™s called generosity. â€œBerlusconi, if he wants to go to bed with a girl, he doesnâ€™t have to pay the girl,â€ Minetti says, shooting me a rather haughty, knowing look. â€œI can assure you of that.â€
While prostitution is not illegal in Italy, paying for sex with a person under the age of 18 is. And one of the girls, a runaway Moroccan belly dancer who goes by the stage name Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby Heart-Stealer), was only 17 when she began partaking in the festivities. The 56-year age difference didnâ€™t stop Berlusconi from gabbing with her on the phone 67 times over the course of three months and allegedly paying for her sexual services on at least 13 occasions. Which may be why he was in a bit of a state on the night of May 27, 2010, when Ruby (born Karima El Mahroug) was picked up by the police after another girl accused her of stealing 3,000 euros. Who knew what she would tell the authorities under pressure? A flurry of phone calls ensued among the prime minister, Minetti, and a local prostitute with whom Ruby was living. The prime minister called the police station and â€œrequestedâ€ that she be released to Minetti. The girl is the granddaughter of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, he said, and Italy canâ€™t afford an international incident! This piece of nonsense, pulled out of thin air, has landed him a second charge, in addition to paying for sex with a minor: abusing the power of his office. Minetti, mother hen that she is, took Ruby under her wing after they left the police station â€¦ by promptly dumping her back at the pad of the prostitute.
How is it that in France Nicolas Sarkozy is spearheading the efforts to oust Qaddafi, in Germany Angela Merkel is sorting out the European Unionâ€™s debt crisis, and in Italy Berlusconi is not just bedding young women left and right but flaunting it publicly and giving them high-profile government posts? More to the point, how is it that heâ€™s still in office? True, heâ€™s facing criminal charges, but Italians have come to accept that that doesnâ€™t mean much. Heâ€™s been indicted more than 20 times (not including four or five current trials) and has managed to escape conviction each and every time. In any other Western democracy, a leader like this would have been pushed out long ago.
But this is Italy, where Berlusconi, as prime minister, controls the three public television networks and, as the force behind the $8.6 billion conglomerate Fininvest, owns the three largest of the countryâ€™s four private networks, the largest publishing house, and around 40 magazinesâ€”not to mention dozens of other companies ranging from advertising to bookstores, to interactive media, to the soccer team A.C. Milan. He also owns film and TV production and distribution companies, insurance companies and mutual funds, banks, radio stations, and his own corporate university. Imagine a President Donald Trump with the media holdings of Rupert Murdoch and the sexual tastes of an aging Charlie Sheen, and youâ€™re approaching the idea of Berlusconi.
Still, someone in his own party might have said something about his scandalous behavior. Alas, he owns that too, as virtually all the members of his party, Popolo della LibertÃ , which he founded in 1993 under the name Forza Italia, owe their livelihood to him. And so they valiantly muster their outrage to claim that heâ€™s being targeted yet again by a politicized judiciary. â€œTo transform private habits, parties, and, how to say, erotic relationships with young women and private friendships. I wonâ€™t discuss [whether] itâ€™s good, itâ€™s bad, itâ€™s good taste, bad taste. Itâ€™s private!â€ declares his former top aide Giuliano Ferrara, a hefty, 59-year-old charismatic powerhouse. He paces, chain-smoking, across the office of the right-wing newspaper he founded, Il Foglio, in which Berlusconiâ€™s estranged wife owns a large stake. â€œTo transform this into a prosecution is really the most biased and culturally perverse way of operating justice.â€
Minister of Equal Opportunities Mara Carfagna, whose job it is to look out for womenâ€™s rights, is equally appalled. â€œThe center-left is not about propositions, ideas, or reforms, and so basically because they canâ€™t defeat Berlusconi through the ballots, they want to defeat him through the judiciary,â€ she explains. And if anyone knows a thing or two about whatâ€™s good for women, itâ€™s she. Like Minetti, she was a velina on one of Berlusconiâ€™s TV programs, as well as a topless model, before he decided she had just what it took to help run the country. All she needed was a shorter haircut and a smart pantsuit.
As for Berlusconi, in trying to defend himself, he has fallen back on his two standbys: blaming the Communists (even though Communists havenâ€™t been a major force in Italy for 20 years) and making off-color jokes. â€œIâ€™m 74 years old and even though I may be a bit of a rascal â€¦ 33 girls in two months seems to me too much even for a 30-year-old,â€ he told reporters in March. Besides, he declared when the Ruby scandal broke, â€œitâ€™s better to be fond of beautiful girls than to be gay.â€
Itâ€™s alarming that Berlusconi and his supporters seem to be entirely unconcerned about the image his behavior is giving Italy. Then again, this is a man who didnâ€™t get into politics because he loved Italy so much. He got into politics to keep himself out of jail and his business empire intact.
The son of a bank employee and a housewife in Milan, Berlusconi studied law, but his first love was music. For a time he played the bass in a nightclub band and sang on cruise ships. In the 1960s, he turned to construction and real-estate development and amassed his first fortune by the time he was in his 30s. As Alexander Stille reports in his 2006 account of Berlusconiâ€™s career, The Sack of Rome, Berlusconiâ€™s approach to doing business involved not only a lot of positive thinking (one of his pearls of wisdom was â€œAlways carry the sun in your pocket!â€) but also a certain chicanery, like making up quotes and attributing them to famous people, such as American tycoons. â€œPeople are totally gullible,â€ he told his employees. â€œThey drink up quotations!â€
He never had to bribe anyone in his rise as real-estate mogul, he boasted. Sure, maybe a little kickback here, a piece of the action thereâ€”but that was just the patented Silvio charm. Then, around 1980, he turned his energies to buying television stations and importing for them such American shows as Dynasty, Dallas, and Baywatch. â€œHe knew what the audience wanted,â€ says Enrico Mentana, who anchored the news on Berlusconiâ€™s Canale 5 for 12 years. â€œBerlusconiâ€™s television was a paradise of entertainment, game shows, women.â€ He operated these stations only semi-legally, because in Italy private stations could broadcast only locally, not nationally. But he overcame these statutory hurdles easily, by cozying up to the then prime minister and head of the Socialist Party, Bettino Craxi. In 1984, when judges shut down Berlusconiâ€™s channels, Craxi simply issued a decree that made his nationwide network of â€œlocalâ€ stations legal. Much to the relief of millions of Italians, Wheel of Fortune and The Smurfs were turned back on. Some years later, it would emerge, Berlusconiâ€™s Fininvest funneled some 21 billion lire (around $17 million) into Craxiâ€™s secret offshore bank accounts.
When Craxi was out of power and the Italian Parliament demanded that clear rules for media be made, Berlusconi adapted by paying a $500,000 â€œconsulting feeâ€ to the man tasked with writing the new law, which would stipulate that no individual could own more than three networksâ€”oddly enough, the very number that belonged to Berlusconi. The law did force one concession from him. It said that an individual could not own both a national television network and a national newspaper. So he turned over the newspaper Il Giornale â€¦ to his younger brother, Paolo.
Starting in 1992, however, the system of political bribery that Berlusconi apparently had mastered was mortally threatened when a group of courageous prosecutors in Milan launched Mani Pulite (Operation Clean Hands) to battle Italyâ€™s endemic corruption. Berlusconi was not the only person giving out bribes to politicians in those days; it was practically a national industry. In total, the amount of money that went into bribes was estimated to be about $8 billion a year. The magistrates found corruption in all the political parties, but Craxiâ€™s Socialist Party was the biggest recipient. Craxi was indicted on 11 counts, and fled into exile in Tunisia. Berlusconiâ€™s Fininvest was found to be among Craxiâ€™s biggest donors, and indictments were handed down to a number of Fininvestâ€™s executives. As Berlusconi told the legendary Italian journalists Indro Montanelli and Enzo Biagi, â€œI am forced to enter politics, otherwise they will put me in prison.â€
â€œBerlusconi feared a tragical destiny,â€ says his ally Ferrara. â€œBecause in Italy we had many great tycoons who committed suicide from the [prospect] of arrest or others who committed suicide in prison after three months of pre-emptive detention. In this situation, he feared for his empire. And he decided to go into politics because he was very popular.â€
Indeed, a poll taken among young people at the time showed that Berlusconi topped a list of best-loved public figures, ahead of Arnold Schwarzenegger (No. 2) and Jesus Christ (No. 3). â€œHeâ€™s full of charm,â€ says Mario dâ€™Urso, a former senator from the center-left and a society fixture. â€œYou can hate him in a way, but itâ€™s very difficult to dislike him.â€ After all, he was the guy who brought the soccer matches into peopleâ€™s living rooms, not to mention Italyâ€™s first topless game show.
In 1994 he called upon all areas of his empireâ€”television, advertising, financial servicesâ€”to harness their love and put him in office. His top ad salesmen, despite their lack of legislative experience, were enlisted to become parliamentary candidates, and given screen tests and a training seminar at Berlusconiâ€™s villa. â€œIt was a blitzkrieg,â€ recalls the anchorman Mentana, who witnessed the transformation of his own news program, on one of Berlusconiâ€™s channels, into a cog in the making of a prime minister.
While raising the specter of Communism, Berlusconi presented himself as a pure, glistening political outsider who would break with the corruption of the recent past and usher in a new â€œRivoluzione Liberale,â€ opening up markets and bringing people the kind of miraculous success he himself had achieved. In keeping with his romantic, think-big mojo, he chose for his new party the name â€œForza Italiaâ€ (â€œGo Italy!â€), the rallying cry for the Italian national soccer team. In order to get the votes he needed, he formed a coalition with two disparate though equally distasteful groups: the Northern Leagueâ€”a kind of Italian Tea Party whose ultimate goal was secession from the poor, less developed Southâ€”and the ultra-patriotic National Alliance, whose leader famously praised Mussolini as â€œthe greatest statesman of the twentieth century.â€ It didnâ€™t matter that the two parties loathed each otherâ€”Berlusconi was a master at making promises he had no intention of keeping.
Thanks to peoplesâ€™ disillusionment with the corruption in the established parties, Berlusconi was victorious. Almost overnight, the parties that had ruled Italy for 50 years were replaced by a group of well-groomed corporate suits whose only experience was working in Berlusconiâ€™s media empire, and whose only platform was Berlusconi. Fifty deputies came from his advertising company alone, dozens more from his other companies. â€œIâ€™m like Prince Charming,â€ he said delightedly. â€œThey were pumpkins and I turned them into parliamentarians.â€
His model for governing was the â€œidea of the team, the football team, like [his] Milan football club, or an industrial team, and he is the owner,â€ says Ferrara, who left a job as an anchorman on one of Berlusconiâ€™s channels to become his spokesman. â€œYou have stakes in the company, and you can decide, because you are the owner.â€
For all his confidence in his winning personality, for all the sunshine he kept in his pocket, Berlusconi had zero finesse in the political arena. â€œI tried to help transform him into a statesman. We didnâ€™t succeed. It was impossible,â€ recalls Ferrara. â€œPolitics is mediation, itâ€™s unification of different sectors of society, of different cultures. He never wanted to learn that.â€ Tackling his one priority of saving himself, he came on like a bull in a china shop. When rumor spread that his brother, Paolo, might be arrested for having allegedly bribed tax inspectors to keep Fininvest out of the prosecutorsâ€™ investigations, Berlusconi issued a special decree that made it illegal for the judiciary to arrest people for political corruption and fraud. With the stroke of a pen, thousands of defendants whoâ€™d been arrested for corruption were suddenly free men. Throughout Italy, it became known as â€œthe Save-the-Thieves Decree.â€
But this proved to be a step too far. Umberto Bossi, the head of the Northern League, turned against Berlusconi, saying, â€œInstead of governing, Berlusconi is trying to keep his friends, relatives, and employees out of jail.â€ He split with the prime minister, taking with him enough deputies to bring the government downâ€”just seven months after coming to power.
Before he was ousted, Berlusconi had mobilized his media to destroy the Clean Hands magistrates. His chief target was Antonio Di Pietro, the public face of Clean Hands, who was considered, at that point, a hero by the Italian people. Berlusconiâ€™s media outlets began a campaign to slander him, trumpeting a number of bogus scandals, but one allegationâ€”involving an interest-free loan of 100 million lire (about $80,000) that Di Pietro had received from a friendâ€”hit home. It was perhaps more a case of bad judgment than anything else, but when Di Pietro was notified that an investigation was under way, he quickly resigned.
This kind of Swift Boating and character assassination became standard procedure for Berlusconi, even when he was out of power. When the girlfriend of a top Fininvest lawyer testified that another Berlusconi lawyer had bragged that â€œhe had many magistrates on his payroll and that he was in a position to buy the third branch of government,â€ she was attacked in his newspapers as a â€œcourtesanâ€ and a crazy person who â€œclaims to have had three babies who died.â€ (In fact, as Stille has reported, she had had three children who died of cystic fibrosis.) When a comedian did a show on one of the public stations exposing the long-standing Mafia ties of one of Berlusconiâ€™s top lieutenants, the Berlusconi-owned news organizations attacked, causing him to lose his job. After the editor of Avvenire, a Catholic newspaper, criticized Berlusconiâ€™s affairs with young women, Il Giornale printed excerpts from a supposed court document that suggested that the editor had a male lover and had been sued for harassing this manâ€™s wife. Several months later, it became clear that the court document was a fake, cooked up as an intentional smear. By that time, the editor had resigned, exhausted by â€œa war of words that has wrecked my family.â€
For Mentana, who had gone to Mediasetâ€™s flagship channel, Canale 5, before Berlusconi turned to politics, trying to report the news honestly was a struggle. When he dared to report on a Mafia investigation, say, that touched on Berlusconi, he was hauled on the carpet by the Berlusconi cronies who were his bosses. They fired and rehired the popular anchor twice; eventually, unable to take it any longer, he left of his own volition.
In another favorite tactic, Berlusconi took to presenting himself as a victim. Far from entering politics out of self-interest, heâ€™d done so on a mission to save Italy, and oh, the sacrifices he had to make. â€œIâ€™ve had to give up a very pleasant lifeâ€¦ . I suffer doing these things,â€ he told Vanity Fair in 1994. â€œI am the Jesus Christ of politics,â€ he later said. â€œI sacrifice myself for everyone.â€
His electorate fell for it. In 2001, with the Northern League once more in his pocket, he was elected againâ€”just in time to save Team Berlusconi. By this point, the Clean Hands prosecutors had discovered tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars controlled by Berlusconi in offshore bank accounts, and evidence of payoffs made in every direction, to judges, politicians, and the women in their lives; he and his close associates were slapped with dozens of indictments for fraud, tax evasion, and bribery. Berlusconi fought back by putting his own legal-defense team in charge of re-writing the laws of Italy. He put two of his criminal-defense attorneys up for Parliament and then installed them at the head of the Justice Commission. He made his personal tax lawyer minister of economy and finance. The three henchmen in deepest legal trouble he made members of Parliament.
Together, they would tailor the laws to fit their immediate legal needs. To wit: Berlusconi was still facing a serious charge of accounting fraud related to illegally transferring millions of dollars to Craxi. So Parliament decriminalized that kind of false accounting, rendering the charge moot. He stood accused of tax evasion. Suddenly there was amnesty for tax evaders. He was facing the charge of having bribed a judge: Parliament passed a new law granting immunity to Italyâ€™s highest-ranking leaders. Soon, the immunity law would be struck down, but by the time Berlusconiâ€™s trial resumed, he was saved by the statute of limitations. â€œAll these decisions or proposals made by Berlusconi had the effect of blocking the real work of the Parliament,â€ says Giuliano Pisapia, the lawyer representing the opposing side in another bribery case against Berlusconi. But Berlusconi insisted this was the real work of Parliament. As he explained, â€œIf I, in taking care of everyoneâ€™s interests, also take care of my own, you canâ€™t talk about a conflict of interest.â€
Problem was, he hadnâ€™t taken care of anyone elseâ€™s business. From his long list of non-accomplishments, the most glaring is what he hasnâ€™t done to open up markets and competitionâ€”presumably because he has wanted to avoid competition for himself. When, for example, a new channel, La7, was about to be launched as a challenger to Berlusconiâ€™s near monopoly of television, Telecom Italia, the fledgling stationâ€™s owner, suddenly backed down. Considering the amount of damage Berlusconiâ€™s government could wreak on the phone company, it just wasnâ€™t worth it. Berlusconi has similarly tried to hamper the growth of Murdochâ€™s Sky Italia, by doubling the tax its subscribers have to pay.
For a long time business leaders such as Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo, one of the pillars of Italian industry, gave Berlusconi the benefit of the doubt. La Rivoluzione Liberale was just what Italy needed, they believed. But it has turned out to be a hoax, says the dashing and elegant Montezemolo, 63. â€œIn the last 17 years, we have had a country that instead of growth, instead of increasing competitiveness, instead of looking ahead, has been concentrated on these contingent problems,â€ he says, referring to Berlusconiâ€™s many personal scandals. Like the owners of Telecom Italia, heâ€™s discovered that the only business Berlusconi is interested in is his own. Currently launching a high-speed train throughout Italy, Montezemolo has seen the Berlusconi government try every which way to marginalize it, because the state owns the train system already and sees no benefit in changing the situation. â€œThe political class has been without any kind of accountability,â€ he says.
Berlusconi boosters claim he has done much to free Italy from the powerful grip of organized crime. But Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist who has lived under police protection since 2006, when his book Gomorrah, about the Naples Mafia, was published, says this is mostly spin. â€œWhat the Berlusconi government has done to combat the Mafias â€¦ has taken the form of a military repressionâ€”without really erasing the economic system by which the Mafias thrive,â€ says Saviano. â€œToday the Mafias in Italy remain the most prolific enterprises in the country and are the only ones that have an unimaginable amount of liquid cash. The businesses they control are extremely diverse, and they have the ability to win contracts in every sector.â€
For artists and other creative types, it is the cultural degradation thatâ€™s so depressing. The architect Renzo Piano, who grew up in Genoa, has seen his beautiful image of Italy crumple. â€œItâ€™s a humanistic culture. Itâ€™s the art of mixing things. Itâ€™s the art of lateral thinking,â€ says Piano, a bright-eyed 73-year-old, in his New York office, a few blocks away from his current project, the new, downtown Whitney Museum. â€œSuddenly we found out itâ€™s not like that. This subtle capacity to explore what people sayâ€”itâ€™s only for part of Italy. The other part is people who believe in Berlusconi My wife and I, we spend many evenings feeling profoundly sad about this.â€
By the time Berlusconi had been elected a third time, in 2008â€”after the short, fractured stint of the center-left government of Romano Prodiâ€”it seemed he had achieved all he had set out to. Heâ€™d outplayed enough key people to keep his monopolies intact. Heâ€™d grown his fortune to $9.4 billion. And heâ€™d stayed out of jail. It seemed there was nothing left to do except â€¦ well â€¦ binge on girls.
Ladies of the Right
Even in his 70s, Berlusconi has fancied himself quite the stallion: â€œIf I sleep for three hours, I still have enough energy to make love for another three.â€ He has a physical type: brunette Barbie, with almond eyes, small nose, voluminous lips, and prominent cheekbones. His second wife, Veronica Lario, looked like that once, when she was a B-movie actress. But that was many years ago, and thereâ€™s only so much plastic surgery can do.
Berlusconi might have taken the traditional mistress route, indulging his need for a newer model quietly, on the side, but he just couldnâ€™t resist bringing his affairs into the public arena. Having sex with beautiful women was fun only if you could brag about it. As Stille recounts in The Sack of Rome, one of Berlusconiâ€™s favorite jokes goes something like this: An Italian man is marooned on an island with Claudia Schiffer. Schiffer falls in love with the man and will do anything for him. He tells her he misses his buddies; will she dress up like Dominic and shoot the breeze with him? Schiffer obliges and dresses up like Dominic. He turns to her and says, â€œYouâ€™re never going to believe this, but Iâ€™m fucking Claudia Schiffer!â€
His history in womanizing began years ago. But events turned alarming with the exquisite Mara Carfagna, now 35, who just a few years ago was still flashing her underwear on one of Mediasetâ€™s programs and appearing half naked in the pages of Maxim. Rumors of an affair abounded, and Berlusconi put the velina up for Parliament, making no effort to hide his affection. â€œIf I werenâ€™t already married, I would marry you right now,â€ he said on television in 2007, prompting Lario to print a letter in the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica, demanding an apology from him.
The promotion of veline who were â€œfriendsâ€ of the prime ministerâ€™s continued. Michela Vittoria Brambilla, who hosted a television show about sexy nightclubs, was made undersecretary of tourism. Barbara Matera, a former Miss Italy contestant and television presenter, became a member of the European Parliament. What if a citizen didnâ€™t particularly want to be represented in government by a showgirl? Too bad. In 2006, Berlusconi changed the law so that people vote for parties, not individuals, and the party bossesâ€”i.e., himâ€”make up the national lists. So what if a veteran politician felt diminished debating legislation with a lingerie model? As Berlusconi pointed out, â€œThe left has no taste, even when it comes to women.â€ Soon, velina became the No. 1 career aspiration among girls in media-conscious Milan.
And the girls got younger. In 2009 it emerged that Berlusconi had attended the 18th-birthday party of aspiring velina Noemi Letizia, whom he later hosted for a vacation at his villa in Sardinia. â€œ[I want to be] a showgirl,â€ she told an Italian newspaper. â€œI am interested in politics too Iâ€™d prefer to be a candidate for the Chamber, in Parliament. Papi [daddy] Silvio will take care of it.â€ This was the last straw for Lario, who filed for a legal separation and spoke out in another open letter, to an Italian news agency, condemning her husbandâ€™s behavior and his promotion of showgirls as â€œshameless rubbish â€¦ for the entertainment of the emperor.â€
Then, in an act that can be seen as either hubris or tempting fate, he chose Ruby, the Moroccan runaway. It was his 79-year-old friend the anchorman Emilio Fede who, in 2009, singled her out on a televised beauty contestâ€”and announced to viewers that she was 13 (â€œif Iâ€™m not mistakenâ€) and had come from a hardscrabble life in Egypt with no parents. According to Ruby, he referred her to Mediaset talent scout Lele Mora, and introduced her to the prime minister (allegations Fede has denied). Ruby and Berlusconiâ€™s relationship might have remained under wraps had Berlusconi not butted in on May 27, 2010, when Ruby was brought into the police station in Milan after being accused of theft.
The revelation of his association with the belly dancer set in motion an investigation involving numerous witnesses and employing the all-important tool of intercepted cell-phone calls. For 15 years prosecutors had watched Berlusconi squirm out of one indictment after another. But this time may be different. In January, the Constitutional Court (the Italian version of the Supreme Court) scaled back the law that gave the prime minister immunity, theoretically making Berlusconi vulnerable again. He faces up to 3 years in prison for the juvenile-prostitution charge and up to 12 years for abuse of office.
As the 389-page dossier of the prosecutorsâ€”led in part by Ilda Boccassini, one of the Clean Hands â€œCommies,â€ whom Berlusconi had tried to tarnish in the mediaâ€”makes clear, the crime and the subsequent cover-up could become Berlusconiâ€™s Watergate.
â€œNow they basically know that Iâ€™ve been to Silvioâ€™s and that I know Silvio,â€ Ruby told a friend on the phone in September 2010, after she had been brought in for questioning by the prosecutors in Milan. â€œI denied that Silvio knows Iâ€™m under-age. I told them that he believes Iâ€™m of age, because I donâ€™t want to get him in trouble â€¦ [that] Iâ€™m of age, that Iâ€™m 24, but that I go there as a friend.â€
The prime minister started to worry. As Ruby said to her friend, â€œMy case is the most frightening one of all. It goes beyond the [Noemi] Letizia case [and] the [paid-escort Patrizia] dâ€™Addario case, all of them.â€ He was willing to do anything to make it go away.
That, naturally, meant a payoff. The prosecutorsâ€™ dossier reveals a call in which Ruby said to her father, â€œSilvio told [the lawyers], â€˜Tell her I will pay her whatever she wants. The important thing is that she keeps her mouth shut, that she denies everything. She can even say sheâ€™s crazy, but the important thing is that she leaves me out of all this.â€™â€ And to another friend: â€œHe called me yesterday saying, â€˜Ruby, Iâ€™ll give you as much money as you want. Iâ€™ll pay you. Iâ€™ll cover you in gold. But the important thing is that you hide everything, hide everythingâ€”donâ€™t say anything to anyone.â€™â€
Ruby warned that her silence wouldnâ€™t come cheap. She said to a friend, â€œI spoke with Silvio, and I told him that I want to come out of this with at least something. I mean, give me five million.â€ And then to another: â€œWhatâ€™s important is that he is going to be stuffing me with money.â€
Berlusconi has denied it all, except for a cash gift of 60,000 euros (about $81,000)â€”to buy laser hair-removal gear so she could open a beauty salon. But prosecutors say they have evidence that he paid Ruby for sex on 13 occasions, and that she received $300,000 worth of gifts, including two Rolex watches, a $20,000 diamond necklace, and a $24,000 fox fur. (Ruby declined to be interviewed for this article after being told that the magazine would not pony up some money, too.) Beyond Ruby, the investigation has blown open the door to the inner workings of Berlusconiâ€™s bacchanalias that took place at his villa in Sardinia, his Palazzo Grazioli, in Rome, and at Villa San Martino, his 145-room mansion in Arcore, outside Milan.
The women hailed from all parts of Italy, as well as Russia, Romania, the Ukraine, and South America. Regional Representative Minetti, newsman Fede, and Mediaset talent scout Mora seem to have been responsible for wrangling, shuttling the girls to and from, and wardrobe suggestions. As Mora told Roberta Bonasia, the recently crowned Miss Turin, â€œYouâ€™ll be the official nurse. You have to have one of those things for measuring his blood pressure, and you can wear the kind of blouseâ€”â€ â€œThat women doctors wear,â€ Roberta jumps in. â€œWith nothing underneath, obviously.â€
After a casual dinner during which the girls would be smoking and checking their cell phones, it was time for the â€œbunga bunga,â€ a type of wild harem party that Berlusconi learned from his good friend Qaddafi, Ruby told investigators. One by one, the girls would change their outfits, hit the stripperâ€™s pole, and allow themselves to be fondled. Minetti, the queen bee, took part as well, according to more than one witness.
Patrizia dâ€™Addario, who allegedly received 1,000 euros (about $1,350) to attend a party in Rome (and later slept with Berlusconi, she claimed, in a bed he was given by Vladimir Putin), described the scene in a tell-all: â€œHe was on the couch and all of us, twenty girls in all, were at his disposal. The younger women were in fierce competition with each other as to who could sit closest to the prime minister.â€
Following the bunga bunga, according to prosecutors, one or more of the lucky ladies would be chosen to spend the night with him. â€œI stayed there and slept over, obviously,â€ Roberta Bonasia told her brother on the phone the day after one tryst, adding, â€œI didnâ€™t sleep at all.â€ She said she was given an envelope containing â€œthe same as there was the other times,â€ which he said was to help her out with the shop she wanted to open. In fact, most were given some kind of party favor. One shocked girl, who never went back, told prosecutors that she was given an envelope upon leaving. â€œI opened the envelope, in the presence of Nicole [Minetti], and I saw it contained four 500-euro bills. I was surprised and embarrassed, and I asked Nicole to explain the gesture, and why I had received this money. Nicole explained that the prime minister knew about my studies and that the gift was intended to be a contribution to my studies. Minetti said that I had to interpret that gesture as a gesture of generosity.â€
â€œI think thatâ€™s one of the most beautiful things a person can do: help people that are in need,â€ explains Minetti today. â€œIf I have a rich boyfriend and I go to bed with him and he gives me money for the rent or for the car, that means Iâ€™m doing prostitution with him? â€¦ [Berlusconiâ€™s] not afraid of believing in young people and investing on them. And thatâ€™s what he did with me. He invested on me.â€
As the wiretaps show, others were less appreciative. Iris called Aris to say, â€œI just have to call him. Shit, I want to go back there because yesterday he gave me so little, I want something more.â€
Aris texted Barbara: â€œLove, yesterday I ended up going anyway, but he didnâ€™t give me anything. Some of the others, yes. Did he call you? He didnâ€™t answer me. Oof!â€
Another Barbara complained to Fede, â€œNow he prefers to invite the Cubans and the Venezuelans. You know that Maristhelle goes, and Iris goes. But I donâ€™t give a damn If he wants to see me, he can call me, Emilio. Iâ€™m not someone who chases after people. If he prefers a bunch of retards who dance like mongoloid idiotsâ€”really, it makes me sick!â€
It was all getting a little out of hand for the three wranglers (who are now all charged with aiding and abetting prostitution). Berlusconi kept expecting the shindigs to be thrown together at the last minute, and the girls were getting uppityâ€”bothering him with things like who was getting a bigger apartment. Some were even flaunting their relationship with him. Fede had to pay off one girl with 10,000 euros because she had damning pictures on her cell phone. â€œTheyâ€™re 300-euro blow jobs!â€ he told Minetti, exasperated.
â€œIâ€™ve told the girls, â€˜Look, Iâ€™m just the go-between,â€™â€ Minetti said to Fede. â€œâ€˜Iâ€™m the contact, period. Thatâ€™s all. I mean, do what Iâ€™m told, what he tells me to do. But not what you tell me to do.â€™â€
It was enough to make two old-timers rue the day. â€œEh, no one has any manners anymore,â€ Mora told his friend Fede.
The girls had become a pack of ingrates, never bothering to say thank you for the chance to party with the prime minister. According to Fede, a friend of his had suggested that â€œmaybe itâ€™s out of shyness.â€ He passed this tidbit along to Mora, saying, â€œFuck that! Shyness?! You should know how to say thank you.â€
â€œWhen theyâ€™re taking your dick they donâ€™t seem to be overcome with shyness, right?â€ replied Mora.
â€œExactly!â€ said Fede. â€œWhen theyâ€™re taking your dick, in exchange for money, right? Shit!â€
â€œOh, itâ€™s crazy!â€
How crazy? Two days later, the guys were still talking about it.
â€œThey were really awful, the ones she brought Sunday,â€ said Mora.
â€œOh, but the worst! The worst!â€ replied Fede.
â€œThe absolute worst!â€
â€œAnd this Cuban?â€
â€œI mean, really. Itâ€™s incurable, this problem, incurable! And also the money thatâ€™s getting thrown around.â€
â€œItâ€™s so much! So much.â€
â€œAh! So much money! So much!â€
â€œItâ€™s terrifying. Itâ€™s really terrifying!â€
â€œTerrifying! I tried to tell him I have to protect him in every way possible.â€
â€œ[You have to try] to take care of things. If not, it will become a really awful situation.â€
â€œ â€¦ One was phoning from the bathroomâ€”â€
â€œBah â€¦ â€
The End of Tolerance
For a long time, Italians tolerated Berlusconiâ€™s behavior with women. After all, Italy, despite having had a robust feminist movement in the 70s, remains a macho culture, and a good chunk of his male electorate regards his conquests merely with envy. â€œBerlusconi is the prototype of the entrepreneur that fascinates the Italian people,â€ observes Roberto Saviano, â€œwith his smile, his women, his bluntness in saying, â€˜I am a man who works and who enjoys life. Whatâ€™s wrong with that?â€™â€ The Catholic Church has remained mum, perhaps because Berlusconi has supported some of the issues that are important to itâ€”such as blocking gay marriage and limiting assisted fertilization. But with Ruby, it seems, Berlusconi has finally gone too far. In February, hundreds of thousands of people (mostly women but some men too) took to the streets in 200 towns and cities across the country, chanting, â€œItaly is not a brothel,â€ and protesting the general sorry state of womenâ€™s rights in Italyâ€”from their degradation on television to the fact that only 46 percent of women work. Of the 27 countries in the European Union, â€œwe are the last in terms of women, according to any criterion you pick,â€ says left-wing senator Emma Bonino, a feminist who spearheaded the effort to legalize abortion, in 1978. â€œThe situation is so pathetic.â€ One might imagine that Minister of Equal Opportunities Carfagna, in light of her job, would concede that the protesters had a right to be heard. Instead, she dismisses them with a haughty sound bite. â€œWeâ€™re talking about a very noisy minority against a silent majority,â€ she says. â€œThese protests were exploited by the left wing to send Berlusconi home.â€
The next elections are scheduled to take place in 2013. A recent poll shows that Berlusconiâ€™s popularity has fallen to 33 percent. Former prime minister Massimo Dâ€™Alema, one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, insists, â€œThe majority of our people understand that we have to liberate the country from Berlusconi, that Berlusconi is over I believe we can win.â€ He may be right. In May, Berlusconi tried to make the re-election of center-right candidate Letizia Moratti as mayor of Milan into a referendum on popular support for himself in his hometown. She was soundly defeated by Giuliano Pisapia, the center-left candidate. But political observers are quick to point out that among Berlusconiâ€™s rivals there is still no one exactly oozing charisma. As Enrico Mentana puts it, â€œThe left has many Kerrys and Gores, but no Obama.â€
In spite of the evidence against Berlusconi, no one is counting on the Rubacuori case to bring him down. He certainly hasnâ€™t given up his old tricks. On a recent trip to the Italian island of Lampedusa, which has been swamped with thousands of migrants from North Africa since the revolution in Tunisia, Berlusconi was in showman mode, promising to remove them from the island within 60 hours, to build a golf course there, to buy a villa for himself, and to nominate the islanders for a Nobel Peace Prize. His words were manna to the desperate crowds, who cheered and wept and applauded. And it made for great television, pushing aside the other news of the day: Berlusconiâ€”whoâ€™s also facing charges for allegedly bribing his English lawyer David Mills to provide false testimony in previous bribery and financial-fraud casesâ€”had just succeeded in getting Parliament to propose a law shortening the statute of limitations for first-time offenders. Remember all those convictions he escaped? Yes, Berlusconi qualifies as a first-time offender. It seems likely the bill will pass, which would allow him to escape convictionâ€”againâ€”in the Mills bribery case.
As for the prostitution case, heâ€™s dancing as fast as he can. George Clooney was put on the list of defense witnesses, presumably to proclaim that prostitution did not occur at the bunga bungas. (Clooney has said he met Berlusconi only once, to solicit aid for Darfur.)
The trial began on April 6 in a Milan courtroomâ€”without Berlusconi, whose lawyer said he was tied up with the Libyan crisis. The proceedings ran for 10 minutes, before being adjourned until May 31. Berlusconiâ€™s Parliament has voted to ask the Constitutional Court to move the trial from Milan to a special tribunal for ministers in Rome. Meanwhile, Berlusconi is continuing to play it lightly with bad jokes: 79-year-old Emilio Fede accused of offering television jobs in exchange for sexual favors? Berlusconi joked that his old friend couldnâ€™t find his penis if he tried. Whatever the outcome, this is for certain: One day, the whole saga will make a great premium-cable mini-series. Maybe that was Berlusconiâ€™s plan all along.