Berlusconi gets four years for tax fraud
By RACHEL DONADIO
THE NEW YORK TIMES | October 27,2012
A group of people lead by Gianfranco Mascia, a blogger who often organized protests against former premier Silvio Berlusconi, raise their glasses for a toast following the sentence announced against Berlusconi on Friday.
ROME — Two days after former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that he would not lead his party in Italy’s next elections, a court in Milan sentenced him Friday to nearly four years in prison on charges of tax fraud in a case involving television rights.
Although the ruling was Berlusconi’s fourth lower-court conviction, it was his first since he stepped down as prime minister in November, after years in which his personal legal battles often eclipsed the work of his government.
The symbolism of the ruling — a clear blow against Berlusconi — also comes at a time when his center-right party is unraveling and Italy is in the throes of the most dramatic political transition since the one in the early 1990s in which he first came to power.
A lawyer for Berlusconi said the former prime minister would appeal the ruling, which must go through two more rounds of appeal before becoming definitive. It is unlikely that he will ever serve jail time. Even if a definitive ruling were reached before the statute of limitations in the case runs out next year, Berlusconi would most likely still have parliamentary immunity.
On Wednesday, Berlusconi, 76, called for the first primaries of his People of Liberty party, or PDL, and said that he would not lead it in Italy’s national elections next spring to replace the unelected technocratic government of Prime Minister Mario Monti, who has been guiding Italy through a perilous economic crisis. But he said that he would stay involved in politics, and that he would most likely remain a member of Parliament.
The investigation at the heart of Friday’s ruling centered on television and movie rights that Berlusconi’s Fininvest holding company bought in the 1990s via offshore companies from companies in the United States.
Judges said that Berlusconi and other executives of his Mediaset business empire were accused of inflating the price of television rights for U.S. programs via a series of offshore companies, and funneling the overflow into a series of illegal slush funds.
The court Friday acquitted the chairman of Mediaset, Fedele Confalonieri, a longtime Berlusconi loyalist.
Judges also banned the former prime minister from holding public office for five years, a penalty that would be applied only if, and after, a ruling against by the highest court were reached.
On Friday, judges read not only the sentence against Berlusconi but also the reasoning behind it, a step that normally takes between 60 and 90 days after a ruling. That could speed up the appeals process, making a high court ruling possible before the statute of limitations in the case runs out next year.
“If the sentence is confirmed before the statute of limitations runs out, he has to leave Parliament,” said Marco Travaglio, a journalist who has chronicled all of Berlusconi’s trials.
A lawyer for Berlusconi, Piersilvio Cipollotti, said that the former prime minister would appeal the ruling.
Berlusconi, who owns Italy’s largest private broadcaster, Mediaset, as well as major holdings in real estate, insurance, advertising and publishing, has been involved in dozens of legal cases. A trial over accusations that Berlusconi paid for sex with an underage prostitute is currently being heard in Milan. He has denied all charges against him.
Between 1997 and 1998, when Berlusconi was the opposition leader, he was convicted by lower courts on charges of tax fraud and corruption.
In one case, known as All Iberian, prosecutors said Berlusconi and his associates used offshore accounts to illegally finance Italy’s former socialist party leader, Bettino Craxi, who was Berlusconi’s former political patron.
All three previous lower court convictions were either overturned on appeal or thrown out for lack of evidence — or the statute of limitations ran out before a definitive highest court ruling was reached.
In 2009, a Milan court sentenced the British lawyer David Mills, who has helped Berlusconi’s company set up the offshore accounts, for taking almost $600,000 in exchange for providing favorable testimony in two trials against Berlusconi.
The ruling was upheld on appeal, but in 2010, Italy’s highest court threw out the case after the statute of limitations ran out.