Berlusconi ally denies Mafia-run ballot plot

Fraud allegations against top aide rock election frontrunner as Italians flock to the polls today

An Italian senator and top aide to Silvio Berlusconi has been forced to deny reports linking him to an alleged Mafia-run plan to hand Berlusconi 50,000 fraudulent votes, as voting gets under way today in the Italian elections.

Marcello Dell'Utri, who is appealing against a sentence for consorting with Mafia clans, has admitted helping to enrol on Berlusconi's election campaign a man whom prosecutors suspect teamed up with the Calabrian Mafia to fix votes. But the Sicilian senator, who helped to launch Berlusconi's Forza Italia party in 1994, described reports of his possible links to the alleged vote fraud as 'lies and garbage', adding that he had not been told he was under

investigation. With a tight race in the senate expected as voters head to the polls today and tomorrow, the overseas vote could prove to be decisive in the battle between Berlusconi and centre-left leader Walter Veltroni to take over from Romano Prodi, whose government collapsed in January. Just over 1.2 million votes have been cast overseas.

Investigators believe the scam was set to take place in South America, where expatriate Italians handed in their votes to Italian consulates last week. Aldo Micciche, a businessman who moved to Venezuela after being convicted of fraudulent bankruptcy in Italy, is suspected of planning with the Calabria-based 'Ndrangheta to fill in 50,000 blank ballot slips obtained from corrupt officials, Corriere della Sera wrote yesterday. Micciche denied the allegations. The Interior Minister, Giuliano Amato, confirmed he had been alerted by investigators in Reggio Calabria, capital of the Calabria region, about possible electoral fraud in South America. He added that controls had been tightened.

Dell'Utri confirmed on Friday that he had been contacted by Micciche, who told him he could help to promote Berlusconi's Freedom Folk party to expatriate voters in South America. 'I put him in touch with our representative, Barbara Contini,' Dell'Utri told Il Giornale. 'That was the end of the matter. This person was interested in organising the vote of Italians abroad, as are many people who are linked to all parties and in all parts. I do not see what the problem is.'

Barbara Contini, who was governor of the Iraqi town of Nasiriyah when it fell under the responsibility of Italian troops, said that no candidates for Berlusconi's party abroad were involved in electoral fraud. But Corriere della Sera alleges that police wiretap transcripts show Micciche told Dell'Utri on the phone: 'It will be enough to pay a staffer... Those responsible for the vote will shut both eyes when one of our people retrieves all the unfilled slips and puts a cross in the Freedom Folk box.'

The fee asked was €200,000, the newspaper added. Italian newspapers said investigators believe that Micciche was working with members of the Piromalli clan, part of the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta Mafia, which has recently overtaken its Sicilian and Neapolitan counterparts thanks to drug trafficking and its ties to Colombian cartels.

Quoting leaked police documents, Corriere della Sera claimed that Micciche asked two leading members of the clan to visit Dell'Utri at his Milan office. Dell'Utri was taped after the meeting, the newspaper wrote, complimenting Micciche for introducing him to two 'good picciotti,' a Sicilian word for youngster used to describe low-level mafiosi. Dell'Utri has risen through the political ranks after running an advertising firm owned by the media magnate.

At the end of his second term as Prime Minister, between 2001 and 2005, Berlusconi changed the electoral law to allow Italians resident abroad to elect six senators and 12 parliamentary deputies.

Contributor

Tom Kington in Rome

The GuardianTramp

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