11.20.12

The Curious Case of Berlusconi’s Money Man’s Kidnapping

It took more than 24 hours for Berlusconi to go to the cops after the attempted extortion of his loyal money man. Barbie Latza Nadeau on the curious, if not bungled, case.

Six men were arrested on Monday in connection with the kidnapping and extortion attempt involving Silvio Berlusconi’s longtime accountant. Now investigators in Milan are trying to unravel a twisted web of curious clues into whether Berlusconi paid €8 million for his loyal money man’s release. And, if so, what else did he get in return for the ransom?

It’s a shame when bad things happen to good people. But few in Italy have much sympathy for accountant Giuseppe Spinelli, one of former Italian prime minister Berlusconi’s most loyal henchmen, who was held for more than 12 hours at gunpoint in his Milan apartment last month as kidnappers tried to extract €35 million from his boss.

According to the initial police report released Monday, Spinelli was accosted around 9:45 p.m. on the evening of Oct. 15 as he was returning home from work. His wife, Anna, was busy preparing dinner in the couple’s Milanese apartment when she opened the door to greet her husband, as she did every night when she heard the elevator reach their eighth-floor landing. She found two men holding a gun to her husband’s head. The men pushed him into the house, breaking his glasses. She said he was bleeding from the mouth. The gunmen left 12 hours later after early-morning telephone negotiations with Berlusconi and his lawyers, who did not call the police. When the kidnappers finally left the Spinelli home, a private bodyguard under Berlusconi’s employ quickly whisked the accountant to Berlusconi’s villa, presumably for a debriefing. Only then, a full 31 hours after the crime, were authorities alerted.  

Spinelli, 71, affectionately known as “Spinaus” among the bunga-bunga set, was widely known as the paymaster in Berlusconi’s most seedy personal affairs. He had worked for Berlusconi and his family since 1978, keeping the most secret details of the media magnate’s complex financial labyrinth. He dealt exclusively with Berlusconi’s personal wealth, helping pay personal staff and managing alimony and child-support payments to his ex-wives.

He was also the go-to guy when Berlusconi’s babes and bad boys needed cash, and, according to court documents from Berlusconi’s ongoing underage sex trial, Spinaus was the one who paid the rents and ordered the preparation of envelopes of crisp hundred-euro bills for the girls who allegedly stripped and fondled Berlusconi and his cronies at the former prime minister’s orgiastic bunga-bunga parties at his Arcore villa in Milan. When the news of the kidnapping broke on Monday, Barbara Guerra, one of Berlusconi’s frequent bunga-bunga guests, tweeted “Poor Spinellino! My treasure.”

But Spinelli’s kidnapping is cagey for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with the former prime minister’s carnal vices. Instead, his kidnappers said they wanted money for Spinelli’s release and for documents they had on a USB jump drive along with a video file on a DVD that they believed would help reverse a guilty corruption verdict and hefty €560 million fine against Berlusconi’s holding company Fininvest. The video clip, which Spinelli watched, allegedly proved that Berlusconi’s onetime ally and current political frenemy Gianfranco Fini had set him up in a secret conversation with the judge on the case.

Spinelli told Berlusconi that the video was “authentic” and asked him to pony up the cash for his release and a copy of the covert video. Fini denies the accusation as “ridiculous,” but a prosecutor in Milan is considering opening an investigation into the allegations—if they can get their hands on the video.

Spinaus was the one who paid the rents and ordered the preparation of envelopes of crisp hundred-euro bills for the girls who allegedly stripped and fondled Berlusconi and his cronies.

It is still unclear whether the six men who were arrested Monday— three Italians and three Albanians—were working on someone else’s orders or if they had concocted the failed plan on their own, but one thing is clear: they weren’t exactly professionals. Gang leader Francesco Leone made a rookie mistake by leaving a fingerprint at Spinelli’s house, and because he was (for a time) a Mafia turncoat with a criminal record in Puglia, he was easily traceable. He also wore easily identifiable red-and-black sneakers—the colors of Berlusconi’s A.C. Milan soccer squad—during the abduction, which Spinelli and his wife remembered, and which were easily identified on surveillance-camera footage taken before and after the incident.  

Whoever the mastermind was, they clearly wanted to get at Berlusconi, and they knew enough about his inner circle to know that holding his personal cash man at gunpoint would put a special kind of pressure on him to act. Berlusconi’s lawyers deny paying any ransom, but Alessandro Giuliano, the prosecutor on the case, doesn’t believe them. Instead, he says Berlusconi moved €8 million out of his accounts in the days after the abduction, and he wants to know if that was a belated payoff for Spinelli’s release and if any other materials changed hands.

He also wants to know why Berlusconi’s private security detail intervened and picked up Spinelli the morning after the incident instead of going directly to the police. And why did it take more than 24 hours to report the abduction and extortion attempt? “It’s absurd to think there is some sort of fake dossier at play or staging of the sequestering of Spinelli,” Berlusconi’s trusted lawyer Niccolo Ghedini told La Repubblica newspaper. “It’s a simple affair, not a conspiracy.” Simple it is not, and Ghedini’s explanation leaves many more questions than answers about just what happened that night.