Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is angrily fighting back against an aggressive media investigation into the alleged inconsistencies in the details of his friendship with an 18-year-old amateur model. Lashing back at what he calls biased media attacks, he denies that he lied about his relationship with Noemi Letizia and was only trying to protect her and her family's privacy.
La Repubblica, the main center-left newspaper that is often at odds with Berlusconi and his right-leaning political party, The Popular People's Party, has published a list of ten questions that they say Berlusconi needs to clarify in order to clear any suspicions after the prime minister changed his account of how he first came to know Noemi. The calls for full disclosure have been echoed by major press organizations throughout Europe.
The story first appeared in the Italian press when Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, sent an open letter to another Italian paper criticizing her husband's choice of female candidates for the upcoming European elections as unqualified. She also bitterly complained that he had attended Noemi's 18th birthday party in Naples while he never bothered to attend those of his own children. Lario called her husband "unwell" and implied that his attraction to beautiful younger women was causing him to make bad decisions.
The battle of the Berlusconis played out in the press and Lario asked for a divorce. Initially in interviews conducted by ABC News with Rome residents, most Italians shrugged off the divorce and the titillating details as a private matter. But Berlusconi's original explanation that he went to the party because he happened to be in Naples that evening and had a spare hour or so has been disputed by the Italian press after interviews with people involved.
The prime minister's relationship to Noemi's father, Elio Letizia, described as a friendship, is also in dispute, as is the father's supposed membership of Berlusconi's People's Freedom Party. This has raised doubts about why Berlusconi would have visited on the night of Noemi's 18th birthday party to discuss the candidates for the upcoming elections; the original explanation that was given in response to Lario's complaint. Letizia said in later interviews that Berlusconi first met Noemi when she was 10 years old. He said that Berlusconi had sent a hand-written letter of condolence when their son was killed in a car accident eight years ago and that they have stayed in touch since.
Model's Former Boyfriend: Berlusconi Called Her Repeatedly
Media reports have suggested a different scenario. One Italian article claims that a confidant of the prime minister who works for Berlusconi's vast media empire, Mediaset, showed Noemi's modeling portfolio to Berlusconi during a meeting. According to the press reports, Berlusconi, after seeing the photos, asked that a meeting be arranged between the two.
Now Italian press reports are full of alleged meetings between the pair, including an invitation for her to attend his New Year's Eve party with other young girls, all carried to the villa in Sardinia with his private jet, visits to his government offices, and frequent telephone calls. Noemi has not been seen or heard from in public since the story exploded, but did say in an early interview that she called him "Papi" (Grandpa) and that they spoke often.
Noemi's former boyfriend, Gino Flamino, told newspapers that he was in the room on numerous occasions when Berlusconi had telephoned – long before her 18th birthday and that many meetings between the two had been arranged, including the New Year's party at Berlusconi's home in Sardinia. Flamino is quoted as saying that Berlusconi repeatedly called Noemi on her cell phone, at first without introducing himself, asking her about her school results and calling her "an angel."
A large number of newspapers and Italian television stations are owned by Berlusconi, and as head of the government he controls the state channels he doesn't own. But even with this grip on press coverage the questions being asked by La Repubblica have clearly rattled him. His spokesmen are now framing the press campaign as a political attack aimed at undermining the chances of People's Freedom Party candidates in European elections.
On Sunday, Berlusconi told CNN's intv, "Now, they have accused me of having lied in my statements to newspapers, so to confront such an accusation I will react, I will explain exactly what the situation is and I will have once again all the Italians with me."
It wasn't immediately clear when he would offer this explanation.
Berlusconi remains a very popular prime minister with a firm grip on government, but the daily revelations appearing in the Italian media that contradict his earlier explanations seem to have at least temporarily silenced an outspoken man.