Italy's Berlusconi Found Guilty of Tax Fraud

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An Italian court on Friday sentenced former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to four years in jail for tax fraud in connection with the purchase of broadcasting rights by his Mediaset television company. Weekend Edition host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.


Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister and media mogul, who's been dogged by corruption probes for years has been found guilty of tax fraud. He was sentenced to four years in prison which was soon reduced to one under amnesty laws. Mr. Berlusconi was also barred from holding public office for five years. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is following this story and joins us now. Sylvia, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Mr. Berlusconi has faced many judicial investigations and is, in fact, currently on trial for having paid for sex with a minor. What was this case all about?

POGGIOLI: Well, here, Berlusconi was found guilty of hatching a scheme in which his media empire paid inflated prices for TV rights of some 3,000 U.S. movies and pocketed the difference through slush funds and thereby evaded large quantities of taxes. He apparently made more than $300 million. What's extraordinary, is that the trial actually came to an end. It began in 2006 and Berlusconi's lawyers repeatedly tried to get it suspended through legal wrangling.

His own government passed laws giving Berlusconi special immunity that was struck down by the Supreme Court. In motivating the verdict, the judges were stunningly harsh. They said that Berlusconi possesses a quote "natural capacity to commit crime as showed by the pursuit of the criminal plan." Unquote.

SIMON: Is he going to jail?

POGGIOLI: Probably never. And the reason is that in the Italian legal system a defendant gets two appeals before definitive sentence and given that this trial took six years, I think it's safe to say he'll never see the inside of a jail cell. In addition, the statute of limitations kicks in next year. That's how Berlusconi has evaded jail in the past. He's been convicted four times for various corruption charges and went free, thanks to the statute of limitations which was shortened by laws passed by his own government.

And another case against him was thrown out after his government decriminalized false accounting.

SIMON: He's also been barred from public office. Does that mean he's not going to run again?

POGGIOLI: Well, that ban also won't kick in until there's a definitive sentence after two appeals. And his reaction showed he's in a fighting mood. He said Italy has become uncivil, barbarian and no longer a democracy.

SIMON: Help us understand the impact this might have on Italian politics, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Well, it comes at a time when Berlusconi's own ratings are at really at an all-time low - from 11 percent - and his party is kind of falling apart. And Italy is in the grips of both a deep economic crisis and political chaos. Ironically, the ruling came just two days after Berlusconi had announced he will not run as prime minister in spring elections.

In any case, this ruling is a big blow to Berlusconi's pocketbook. When he entered politics in 1984, he was worth some $200 million. Today, his holdings are close to $4 billion. According to the Italian daily La Repubblica, that means he earned an average of $520,000 a day over close to two decades. And right after the conviction was announced yesterday, shares in his media empire plummeted.

SIMON: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Thanks so much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Scott.

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