Italian opposition parties and the media claimed Tuesday that a measure buried in Italy's euro47 billion ($68 billion) austerity package would allow Premier Silvio Berlusconi's family investment company to avoid a heavy fine, at least temporarily.
Opposition politicians and magistrates expressed outrage at the measure that would suspend any payments until appeals process is exhausted.
Fininvest, the holding company for Berlusconi's family assets, was ordered two years ago to pay euro750 million ($1.09 billion), to a rival for alleged corruption in the takeover of publishing house Mondadori in the 1990s. A decision on the appeal in the Mondadori case is expected later this week. Italian media say Fininvest has not yet paid any part of the fine.
Italian newspapers said the measure only came to light during a review of the austerity package by the Italian president's office.
The Finance Ministry had no immediate comment, though it canceled a presentation of the austerity plan on Tuesday, while President Giorgio Napolitano told reporters that he would not comment on the package until the review was complete.
Meanwhile, Berlusconi ally Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, said the measure was general and not aimed at protecting anyone in particular. "If I understand correctly, it is a general measure," Frattini was quoted by the news agency LaPresse as saying, adding that it didn't receive much attention in the Cabinet.
The government approved the austerity measures last week to show financial markets and the European Union that it is serious about balancing its budget. It must be approved by Parliament.
The three-year-plan aims to bring the government's budget deficit of 3.9 percent this year to near-balance by 2014. It includes new taxes on financial transactions, tax breaks for young entrepreneurs, extending a public sector hiring freeze and cutting ministries' budgets, as well as measures to fight tax evasion.
Opposition politicians said the measure benefiting Berlusconi's family violated the wishes of voters, who demonstrated in last month's referendum that they think the premier does not deserve special treatment. Voters overwhelmingly killed a law that partially shielded Berlusconi and other top officials from prosecution while in office.
"If this is confirmed, it will be proof that the austerity measures will be a problem for all Italians and a solution for Premier Berlusconi," Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the main center-left party, was quoted as saying by il Sole 24 Ore financial daily.
Shares of Berlusconi's Mediaset media company, controlled by Fininvest, were down 1.6 percent to euro3.25 in Milan.