STRINGER/ITALY / Reuters
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi reacts during a news conference at Chigi Palace in Rome on Sept.23, 2010.
By NBC News’ Claudio Lavanga
Did you hear the one about Silvio and the Moroccan belly dancer?
Unfortunately, for the 74-year-old Italian leader, most of Italy has – and the people are not pleased.
A confidential new document containing lurid details about the investigation into the nature of Silvio Berlusconi’s relationship with Karima El Mahroug, an under-aged Moroccan belly dancer nicknamed “Ruby the Heart-Stealer,” could be the final straw for the seemingly indestructible Italian leader.
The 389-page investigation, leaked on the Web this week, contains wire taps of phone conversations full of candid details about backdoor dealings and wild parties that suggest the prime minister has lived a life of unconstrained debauchery aided by an entourage of teenage showgirls, television presenters and talent-scouts.
And it has led to a criminal investigation.
Prosecutors allege that Berlusconi paid for sex with the underage teen and then lied to authorities in order to cover it up.
The lengthy dossier was presented to Italy’s parliament on Monday in order to get special permission to search some of Berlusconi’s properties. Parliament said it will take at least a week to digest all of the information and issue a decision.
Some of the salacious quotes from the leaked wire tap include:
• “There were orgies in there – not with drugs, as far as I know. But they were all drinking, half undressed. Berlusconi started singing and telling jokes. Three [men] and 28 girls. By the end . . . the girls had no bras on and were wearing only those tight knickers.”
- Carlo Ferrigno, a former head of a police intelligence service and anti-racketeering commissioner
• “It’s unbelievable. You don’t know. All of them call him ‘love’ or ‘darling.’ You can’t begin to imagine what goes on there. The papers don’t tell the half of it, even when they’re massacring him.”
- An unnamed party guest
Antonio Calanni / AP
Karima El Mahroug, an under-aged Moroccan belly dancer nicknamed “Ruby the Heart-Stealer,” whose encounters with Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are at the base of a prostitution probe which is rocking Italian politics, is interviewed for a TV show in Milan, Italy, on Wednesday.
• “[Berlusconi] called me and said, ‘Ruby, I’ll give you whatever amount you want. I’ll pay you. I’ll cover you in gold, but the important thing is to keep everything under wraps. Don’t say a thing to anyone.’”
- Karima El Mahroug, aka “Ruby the Heart Stealer,” to former boyfriend Sergio Corsaro on Oct. 7, 2010
• “I told Silvio I wanted 5 million euros for all this. He said that I should just keep making things up and pretend I’m mad – but not reveal anything and stay quiet.”
- El Mahroug to a friend
• “You either do everything or you take a taxi and leave. It’s a real whorehouse there. Berlusconi is touching all the girls’ bottoms. It’s worse than the papers say.”
- Unidentified girl who went to party, to a friend
• “If you do these things in your own bedroom, fine. But in front of everyone else? I ask how [he] can go to work the next day?”
- Unidentified girl who went to party to a friend
• “I thought he’d put on weight; he looked uglier. Last year, [Berlusconi] was looking fitter; now he’s looking over the hill. And he’s ugly with it. He’s just got to cough up. Let’s hope he’s more generous.”
- Showgirl Imma De Vivo, to her twin sister, Eleonora, on Sept. 25, 2010
• “I’ve been going to the prime minister’s house since I was 16 years old, but I have always denied everything to protect him.”
- El Mahroug to a friend on Oct. 26, 2010
• “She [El Mahroug] said she was very friendly with the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. She often went to his house for dinner, to sing, dance, and she had sex with him, for which he gave her lots of money.”
- El Mahroug's roommate, Caterina Pasquina, to investigators
It all started with a minor incident that quickly snowballed into one of Italy’s biggest political scandal: In May of last year, El Mahroug, a runaway teenager, was arrested on suspicion of theft in the northern city of Milan.
While the police looked into the report that she stole thousands of euros and expensive watches from an Italian woman at a beauty parlour she briefly worked for, they thought they were dealing with a minor who got herself in trouble after running away from her family in Sicily. But even before they managed to contact her parents, they received a call from the most unlikely of guardian: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
ALESSANDRO GAROFALO / Reuters
Nicole Minetti smiles during a meeting at the Lombardy regional headquarters in Milan on Jan. 18.
From Paris, he said that she was the niece of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and asked for her immediate release in order to avoid a diplomatic incident. The police obeyed without asking questions, and handed the girl over to another shady character in Berlusconi’s entourage: Nicole Minetti, a former showgirl and dental hygienist who treated Berlusconi’s injuries after he was attacked with a marble statue in 2009, and who was elected in the regional elections for his People of Freedom’s Party months later.
When it became clear that El Mahroug wasn’t related to the Egyptian president, and in fact wasn’t Egyptian at all, she was a 17-year-old Moroccan, investigators asked: Why would the prime minister go to such lengths, including lying to the police, to ensure the release of an unrelated teenager?
Cash, diamonds and Bunga-Bunga
Back in September 2009, El Mahroug wasn’t a heart stealer, but was dreaming of becoming one.
She hit the catwalk at a local beauty contest in a small town in Sicily hoping her Mediterranean beauty would propel her into the world of show business, but only managed to win a minor ribbon.
However, one of the judges at the contest was said to be 80-year-old Emilio Fede, a trusted friend of Berlusconi and a journalist who makes no secret of his staunch support for the prime minister during his newscasts on Italy’s Channel 4.
According to El Mahroug’s testimony, she met Fede through Lele Mora, a show business talent-scout and close aide of Berlusconi, and was later invited to Arcore, Berlusconi’s private residence on the outskirts of Milan.
At first, she told investigators, she was invited for dinner and showered with expensive presents, such as 7,000 euros (about $9,400) and a diamond necklace. During one of her dinners at Berlusconi’s residence, she claims to have attended one of his after-parties, the infamous “bunga-bunga,” an erotic ritual that she says Berlusconi learnt from his friend Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader.
While El Mahroug has always maintained that she never had sex with the prime minister, she told magistrates that the bunga-bunga parties were hardcore orgies with tens of skimpily-dressed or naked aspiring showgirls flirting with the prime minister, who later would choose whom to have sex with.
Nevertheless, the main question investigators are looking into is: Was the prime minister aware that El Mahroug was underage?
From BLTWY: How to party like Silvio Berlusconi
‘I just wanted to help’
When confronted about the allegations, Berlusconi initially downplayed the incident by claiming he took pity on the teenager and simply wanted to help her out. But magistrates following the case believe that his charitable work went beyond giving El Mahroug another shot at freedom and showering her with expensive presents.
Information about her movements, obtained by investigators who monitored her mobile phone, show that El Mahroug downplayed the extent of her relationship with the prime minister.
Instead of attending only a few parties, as El Mahroug claimed, the data revealed she spent whole weekends in Berlusconi’s private residence without leaving the premises, raising questions over the real nature of their relationship.
In Italy, paying for sex with an under-aged woman is a crime punishable with a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
Is Berlusconi a projection of the average Italian?
When El Mahroug's scandal made headlines at the end of last year, it was easy to believe the prime minister would sail through the latest crisis in his typical defiant fashion. After all, it wasn’t the first time he was accused of having had sex with a prostitute, nor was it the first time his relationship with teenagers was called into question.
In 2009, an escort named Patrizia D'Addario claimed to have slept with Berlusconi at his Rome residence and released secret recordings of their conversations, which seemed to support her claim.
The same year, his wife filed for divorce saying she could no longer be with a man who “consorts with minors” after it emerged he attended the 18th birthday party of an aspiring model, Noemi Letizia. Scores of other women, some claiming to be prostitutes, have since come forward claiming to have attended Berlusconi’s parties.
And yet Italians don’t seem to mind. Most of his supporters have accepted his theory that he is the victim of a plot by “communist magistrates” who are out to get him.
But his apparent invincibility, according to one of sociologist Franco Ferrarotti, comes from the fact he is the projection of what most Italians would like to be.
“They see in him a lot of what they are,” Ferrarotti told msnbc.com. “Italians are hypocrites by nature: In public, they condemn his action. But in the privacy of their own bedroom, they are very, very liberal.”
Can the invincible Berlusconi survive this one?
Everyone is equal before the law. But is Berlusconi “more equal” than others?
The investigation was announced just hours after Italy’s Constitutional Court ruled as unlawful parts of an immunity law that would have prevented Berlusconi from going on trial.
Faced with mounting pressure and the prospect of prosecution, Berlusconi has defended himself in typical fashion: by appearing on television.
As a media mogul, Berlusconi is credited with both building his wealth and his political fortunes on the exploitation of his three commercial television channels. So it didn’t come to anyone’s surprise when once again he professed his innocence to Italians by broadcasting a video message.
"There's nothing I should be ashamed of,” he said in the pre-recorded message. “I would like to go on trial immediately, but with impartial judges, not with prosecutors who want to use this case as a means of political fight."
The lower house of parliament now has one month to consider the request to search Berlusconi’s premises to find evidence against him.
But one thing is certain: Despite the fact he is the man who introduced variety shows, quiz games and drama serials to Italian audiences, no soap opera can match the twist and turns of his life.