Silvio Berlusconi, the slick-haired Italian prime minister and George W. Bush ally in the Iraq war, faces a challenge from the center-left in Italy’s general election today. Scandal has mired the tenure of the richest man in Italy (Berlusconi owns much of the Italian media) and hampered his center-right party, Forza Italia, which has rewritten a significant portion of the country’s white-collar fraud laws to stop legal proceedings against the prime minister and his associates. Forza also passed a new electoral law that will soften the blow if the party is voted out. In an effort to convince voters that he is serious about traditional family values, Berlusconi, a former cruise-ship director, has sworn off sex until the election.
Today is the unofficial deadline to shore up the shaky private pension system. The federal agency that insures private pensions ran a $22.8 billion deficit last year, and recent bankruptcies in the airline industry have raised concerns that taxpayers will be left to fund an S&L-style bailout if the government has to pick up more private pensions (already underfunded by $450 billion). The House and Senate have both proposed higher premiums, tougher rules for companies underfunding their pensions, and measures to encourage greater retirement investing by employees, including a provision to automatically enroll workers in 401(k) plans. Congress is expected to act by today, the year’s first deadline for companies to make pension contributions.
As she celebrates her eightieth birthday today, Queen Elizabeth II, England’s head of state since 1952, will transfer some of her duties to the presumptive future king, Prince Charles. Having weathered more than a decade of scandal, Charles will begin greeting foreign dignitaries, overseeing investitures, and spending more time with Prime Minister Tony Blair. The occasion of the queen’s birthday also heralds the bestowal of a new royal portrait, an “impressionistic” piece painted by Australian singer and television personality Rolf Harris (famous for his song “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”) that some critics say depicts the queen as blurry and heavy- featured. Still, it’s considered an improvement on Harris’s first attempts, in which the queen was said to resemble “a pork butcher from Norwich.”
Phil Spector, the legendary producer of such hits as “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Walkin’ in the Rain,” as well as the Beatles’ Let It Be and John Lennon’s Imagine, stands trial today for the February 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson, his sometime consort whose movie credits include Barbarian Queen and Amazon Women on the Moon. Spector initially said that he shot her by accident, before saying that her death was a suicide. The eccentric sixty-five-year-old, who has allegedly brandished firearms at women—and is rumored to have pulled guns on clients including Lennon, the Ramones, and Stevie Wonder—could spend life in prison.
In another spies-and-leaks story that has captivated Washington, two former employees of the influential Israeli lobby the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) go on trial today, accused of giving the press Pentagon secrets that detailed an alleged Iranian plot to kill Americans and Israelis in Iraq. The AIPAC staffers’ source for the information, former Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin, pleaded guilty and was sentenced on January 20 to twelve and a half years in prison. He is cooperating in the government’s case against the lobbyists.
In a surprise decision in January, the Supreme Court halted the execution of a Florida inmate, Clarence Hill, moments before he would have died by lethal injection (he had already been strapped to the gurney and had an IV needle in his arm). A lower appellate court had rejected Hill’s last-minute challenge that lethal injection was “cruel and unusual” (recent studies have suggested that the drug cocktail leaves the condemned conscious and in pain during the execution) before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. A decision, expected by July, will address only the procedural question of how last-minute death-penalty challenges may be brought—not the constitutionality of lethal injection or of the death penalty itself.
Richard Hatch, the mud-slathered Machiavellian nudist whose scheming in Borneo won him the million-dollar prize on Survivor, didn’t fare so well before a more conventional jury. On January 25, he was found guilty of failing to pay taxes on his winnings and related earnings. Sentencing is today. The Rhode Island corporate trainer claims the show’s producers had agreed to pay the taxes (his lawyers said he had arranged the deal in exchange for information about cheating on the island). Hatch faces up to thirteen years in prison.