Berlusconi denies sleeping with teen, says parties weren't sexual


ROME -- Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told a Milan court Friday that he had never had sex with an underage Moroccan girl and that the so-called "bunga bunga" parties with sexy games and stripteases at his home were instead lively dinners followed by amusing shows in his private theater.

Berlusconi, 76, also told the court that he had never pressured police to release Karima el-Marough, the Moroccan teenager also known as “Ruby Heart-Stealer,” when she was arrested in May 2010 on suspicion of theft.

The former leader is accused of paying for sex with el-Mahroug, a sometime nightclub dancer, when she was 17, and of abuse of power for allegedly asking police to release her to one of his aides rather than to foster care where she might divulge details about his parties. El-Mahroug has also denied having sex with Berlusconi.

In what the Italian trial system allows as “spontaneous” remarks, Berlusconi spoke uninterrupted for more than an hour to say that his dinner parties were convivial occasions where guests spoke about politics, sports, told some jokes and listened to music.

“I can say with absolute tranquillity that there was never anything of a sexual nature” during the now-legendary evenings, he said, which often ended with entertainment that was “never vulgar or scandalous.”

The term “bunga bunga,” which went viral after it was divulged in the Italian media, was simply a line from a joke that was misused by news organizations that have always opposed him politically, he said.

Berlusconi told the court that el-Mahroug had described herself as a 24-year-old Egyptian with family links to then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Berlusconi was derided in the Italian press for saying that he called the police station where she was being held in order to avoid an diplomatic incident with Egypt.

The “Ruby” incident grew into a much larger investigation that revealed the participation of dozens of showgirls and would-be starlets in parties at Berlusconi’s mansion in Arcore, a suburb of Milan.

According to transcripts of wiretaps and testimony from some of the young women, he gave large sums of money to those who participated in the parties, as well as paid their rent and bought them cars.

Berlusconi was accompanied in court Friday by his two lawyers, Pietro Longo and Niccolo Ghedini, both members of parliament with Berlusconi's PDL party.

As he has in the past, Berlusconi denied that he has ever paid for sex. He said that his private life had been the object of “nearly maniacal” attention.

He was forced to resign as prime minister last November because of Italy’s financial and economic crisis, but his authority had already been seriously weakened at home and abroad by the sex scandals.


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Mexico's PRI to be declared winner of presidential election

MEXICO CITY -- Finally, Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seven decades, on Friday were on the brink of being declared the formal winners of July's presidential election, following a court ruling that rejected a raft of complaints about the vote.

Mexico's highest electoral tribunal on Thursday night dismissed claims brought primarily by leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador that accused the PRI of buying votes and colluding with the country's major broadcaster to obtain biased pro-Peña Nieto coverage.

In rejecting the complaints because of what it described as insufficient evidence, the tribunal validated the results of the July 1 vote, which gave Peña Nieto an advantage of 6.6 percentage points over Lopez Obrador.

On Friday, Lopez Obrador reacted defiantly, saying he could not accept the judgment of a court "hostage" to the "corrupt forces destroying Mexico."

"The elections were not clean, free or authentic," he said in a morning meeting with journalists. He declared there would be "no truce," that he would not recognize power obtained through vote-buying, and that he would gather his supporters to the Zocalo, Mexico City's massive central square, on Sept. 9 to protest.

His comments were reminiscent of 2006, when Lopez Obrador lost the presidential election by the tiniest of margins. Protests then paralyzed the city and roiled the nation for months.

PRI officials, meanwhile, were celebrating the court's decision, which they said "legitimized" the party's victory. Groups of students and others protested outside the court's offices; El Universal has video here.


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Photo: Protesters shout slogans outside offices of Mexican Electoral Tribunal where the court on Thursday was rejecting complaints filed against the July 1 presidential vote. Credit: Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Images 

Pressure mounts on PRI over its Mexico presidential election win


MEXICO CITY -- In an unusual union, Mexico's left and right came together Thursday to challenge the victory of President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, alleging that his party financed its campaign in part with laundered money.

Gustavo Madero, president of the conservative National Action Party, which now occupies the presidency but got trounced in the July 1 vote, announced at a news conference that he had evidence of money laundering by Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Sitting next to Madero was Jesus Zambrano, president of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, whose presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, came in second. Madero and Zambrano said they would file their formal complaints jointly.

The PRI, in a communique, denied the allegations. It called them part of a "systematic use of lies" to discredit the party, mounted by "those who do not know how to lose."

Lopez Obrador, especially, has hurled almost daily accusations against the PRI involving vote buying, illegal overspending and money laundering in a long-shot bid to have the election annulled.

That is almost certainly not going to happen; still, the steady drumbeat has proved a serious distraction for the Peña Nieto team. The new president will be inaugurated Dec. 1.

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Recount confirms PRI win in Mexico vote, but legal battle looms


MEXICO CITY -- A partial recount of the Mexican presidential vote has confirmed the victory of Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country for seven decades until being ousted in 2000.

The Federal Electoral Institute completed the recount from Sunday’s election on Friday morning. Peña Nieto received a little more than 38% of the vote, while his nearest rival, veteran leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, got 31%. The difference represents between 3 million and 4 million votes.

The final count differed by only a few decimal points from the original fast count released Sunday night.

Lopez Obrador, however, reiterated his refusal to accept the results. He said he would mount a legal challenge in the courts to overturn the election. He has not ruled out street demonstrations like the ones he inspired in 2006, when he lost the presidential election by a much narrower margin. But he hasn't convened them, either.

Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolutionary Party has charged that the PRI paid voters to cast their ballots in the PRI’s favor. One tactic, which reporters have documented, was the distribution of discount cards for a local supermarket chain to voters who said the cards came from the PRI. A huge rush on one of the stores earlier this week seemed to bolster the claim.

The PRI has denied it was responsible and contended that the left was "staging" the whole thing.

But another candidate in the race, the ruling party’s Josefina Vazquez Mota, who came in third, added her voice to complaints about electoral shenanigans.

She said there were "inequities" that marred the campaign and influenced the final vote. Those, she said, included opinion polls throughout the race that gave a suspiciously high (and ultimately incorrect) margin of advantage to Peña Nieto.

Instead of seeking to annul the election, however, she said electoral reforms were necessary to close many of the loopholes that candidates use to skirt legal limits on spending and commit other abuses.

Lopez Obrador is being urged in some quarters to "move on" and accept the results. Other analysts suggest his protests are aimed at driving home the point to the PRI that 62% of the electorate did not vote for the party, and that Peña Nieto will have to deal with that constituency, both in a divided Congress and in the streets.


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Photo: Supporters of Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador hold banners during a protest Thursday in Mexico City. They claim the election was marred by fraud and vote-buying. One banner alludes to the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and says "IFE, coward, correct the damn fraud!" Credit: Sashenka Gutierrez / EPA

Barclays CEO Bob Diamond quits over rate-fixing scandal

Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays, resigned over an inter-bank rate-fixing scandal under investigation by U.S. and British financial authorities
This post has been updated. See the note below.

LONDON -- Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays, resigned Tuesday over an inter-bank rate-fixing scandal under investigation by U.S. and British financial authorities.  The announcement came a day after Barclays' chairman, Marcus Agius, quit his post for the same reason.

[Updated July 3, 7:29 a.m.: Jerry del Missier, the bank's chief operating officer, followed Diamond out the door later Tuesday, announcing that he had quit the post to which he had only recently been appointed.]

Barclays, one of Britain's leading investment and retail banks, is under fire from politicians and financiers and could face criminal investigation from Britain's Serious Fraud Office after reports last week revealed that it, along with about 20 major British and North American banks, had manipulated the LIBOR, the inter-bank borrowing rate used as a benchmark for private and corporate loans.   

Investigators revealed a culture of artificially fixed rates arranged in deals between traders and banks between 2005 and 2009, covering the years of the worldwide financial crisis.

The American-born Diamond headed Barclays Capital, the investment branch of the bank during those crucial years, before being appointed CEO in 2011.  Nevertheless, he has resisted offering his resignation until now. In a letter to Barclays staff Monday, he said he was committed to a "root and branch" review of the bank's practices and pledged that the board would "establish a zero tolerance policy for any actions that harm the reputation of the bank."

Barclays has been fined over $450 million by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the U.S. Justice Department and the British Financial Services Authority.

Diamond's resignation is effective immediately, but Agius will remain as chairman to oversee the installation of his and Diamond's successors.

In his resignation statement, Diamond said his decision came as "the external pressure has reached a level that risks damaging the franchise -- I cannot let that happen."

He went on to say that he was "deeply disappointed that the impression created by the events of last week about what Barclays and its people stand for could not be further from the truth.”

Diamond is scheduled to face a parliamentary committee panel of inquiry Wednesday, and said he looked forward "to fulfilling my obligation to contribute to the Treasury Committee's inquiries related to the settlements that Barclays announced last week, without my leadership in question.”

His announcement comes a day after British Prime Minister David Cameron called for a parliamentary cross-party inquiry to report by the end of the year, with an eye toward reviewing banking laws and regulations. Cameron's proposal is staunchly opposed by the opposition Labor Party, which is demanding a wider public, judge-led independent inquiry of the type now investigating media practices and ethics over the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal.

British Chancellor George Osborne welcomed Diamond's decision, telling the BBC  that it was "the right decision for Barclays and the right decision for the country. ... I hope this is the first step toward a new culture of responsibility in British banking."


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Photo: Bob Diamond. Credit: Carl Court / Getty Images

Military personnel caught up in Secret Service scandal


CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Five members of the U.S. military may have taken part with Secret Service agents in misconduct involving prostitutes at a hotel in Cartagena,and have been confined to their quarters for violating curfew.

The service members -- assigned to support the Secret Service at this weekend’s Summit of the Americas -- may have been involved in “inappropriate conduct” at the Hotel Caribe, where a team of now-recalled Secret Service agents was staying, the United States Southern Command said  Saturday.

Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the Southern Command, said in a statement that he was "disappointed by the entire incident and that this behavior is not in keeping with the professional standards expected of members of the United States military."

He said the military would conduct an investigation and the personnel would face appropriate punishment.

Meanwhile, the military service members are under orders not to have contact with other individuals and will return to the U.S. after the completion of their mission at the summit.

The incident has threatened to mar President Obama’s meeting this weekend with leaders from Central and South America gathered for a regional summit on trade and security.

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