Berlusconi’s EU Election Push Overshadowed by Arrest of Allies

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s efforts to maintain his influence over Italian politics were set back yesterday by the arrest of three ex-collaborators as he campaigned ahead of European elections.

Anti-mafia police in the southern Italian city of Reggio Calabria detained former Industry Minister Claudio Scajola for allegedly abetting a suspected criminal. In Milan, to the north, prosecutors said they uncovered an alleged bribery ring tied to the city’s global trade fair in 2015 and arrested seven people, including two of Berlusconi’s former lawmakers -- one having served nearly 20 years with him in parliament.

Scajola’s lawyers at Rome-based Perroni e Associati didn’t respond to a request for comment. Giorgio Perroni told Italian newspaper Il Messaggero his client is confident in the legal process and his innocence will be fully confirmed.

“I don’t know what they could have arrested him for,” Berlusconi said in an interview with Radio Capital, a station he owns. “I’m sorry he was, I’m saddened.”

The arrests put further stress on the political machine that swept Berlusconi to power three times since 1994. The 77-year-old billionaire is rallying supporters ahead of elections for the European Parliament this month after maintaining the support of voters through a sex-crime conviction and a bribery charge that saw him expelled from Parliament in November.

Scajola, 66, is accused of aiding a fugitive convicted of collusion with the mafia, Reggio Calabria Prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho, said yesterday in a televised news conference.

“The aspect that strikes everyone is how a person who held such significant positions in our state could look after a person convicted of associating with the mafia,” said Cafiero De Raho.

The arrests yesterday added to the woes that have befallen former Berlusconi associates in the six months since their leader was kicked out of the Senate. An extortion probe put a former lawmaker behind bars in Naples in April, while Marcello Dell’Utri, one of the architects of Berlusconi’s 20-year run, has the final appeal of his own conviction for colluding with the mafia before the Italy’s top court in Rome at 10 a.m. today.

Dell’Utri became a fugitive after his initial conviction and was ultimately detained in Lebanon after an international search. Dell’Utri, who has denied wrongdoing, left Italy for medical reasons, his lawyer has said. Dell’Utri isn’t the person Scajola is accused of protecting.

“It doesn’t look good,” Federico Santi, an analyst with Eurasia Group in London, said of the arrests. “I don’t think it will sway voters perception of him or his party for European elections in a major way, though long-term it could have more of an impact.”

European elections will take place May 22-25 and Berlusconi, who is barred by the courts from running, is campaigning for his party.

The former prime minister is currently serving his punishment for the tax fraud conviction that got him thrown out of the Senate. He must complete a year of community service with Alzheimer’s patients in which he is held to a curfew and saddled with travel restrictions. The three-time premier is appealing convictions for abuse of power and paying a minor for sex and was indicted last year on charges of bribing a senator. He has denied all wrongdoing.

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