Italy's Silvio Berlusconi Found Guilty of Tax Fraud

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Marco Werman: Now to another story about a leader accused of improperly enriching himself. A former leader, actually. Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi found guilty of tax fraud today. He was also sentenced by a court in Milan to four years in prison, later reduced to just one, but no jail time for Silvio yet, pending appeals. Reporting Megan Williams is in Rome, and Megan, first of all, tell us what Berlusconi was convicted of exactly.

Megan Williams: As you mentioned, he was convicted of tax fraud. He and ten others were accused of buying US film rights to air on his private television networks, and so what he did was buy the US film rights at inflated prices, through two offshore companies that he controlled, and prosecutors allege that part of the money declared for buying the rights to the movies he siphoned off and created these illegal slush funds to the tune of about 400 million dollars. And this also meant that he paid fewer taxes as a result.

Werman: Now the trial began six years ago when he was still in office, right?

Williams: That's right.

Werman: Why did it take so long?

Williams: Well, I mean, it's been sort of an obstacle course, this whole trial, because Berlusconi at the time the trial began was in office. He was the prime minister. And many observers in Italy point out that the reason(?) for Berlusconi going into politics was to protect himself from prosecution for these sorts of cases. So he passed laws providing immunity from prosecution for himself. And so that stalled the case for a number of years, and then that law was struck down, but he was allowed to say that he couldn't show up in court because he was dealing with affairs of the state. So that delayed it even further. Well, you know, it's vintage Berlusconi.

Werman: Right. And what about all the other trials and charges that he faced during his time in office? Was this one the, the tax fraud charge, the last of the charges he'll face, or are there more to come?

Williams: Oh, no. He has more to come. The most recent one is the sex trial, that's known sort of as the Boonga Boonga(?) trial " ¬¶those parties that he had with these very young women, one at least of whom, was underage. It was part of his overall corruption when he was in office.

Werman: Right. Now when he was in office, Berlusconi was such a polarizing figure. I guess he still is in a certain way in Italy. Managed to hold onto power for years, but for many Italians, he kind of sullied their country. What's been the reaction today to the conviction?

Williams: Typically, his supporters, and he owns a number of newspapers, so the headlines in those papers are the kind of headlines that we've been reading for many years and [speaks Italian] which means the judges just won't go away, and Berlusconi himself says that he is the most persecuted man in history, and that he spent 500 million dollars in lawyers' fees to defend himself against this left-wing plot to get rid of him.

Werman: Well, the trial did have a political component. The court banned Berlusconi from holding public office for several years. Could this really be the end of Berlusconi? We keep hearing that.

Williams: The end of Berlusconi politically has already come two days before this trial. He announced that he would not be running for the premiership of Italy in elections that are coming up soon. His numbers in the polls are so low. Even people who were really diehard supporters of him have a bad taste in their mouth because the economy is in shambles, the unemployment rate is high, there are a lot of Italians who are really hurting politically. And he is not proposing anything new. You know, he is 76 years old. I think most people, even on the right, just want him to go away.

Werman: The sentence he has received has already been reduced from four years to one. Is he gonna do any jail time?

Williams: I doubt very much, and the reason for that is he has the right to two appeals. His lawyers have already said that they were going to appeal, and the statute of limitations applied to the appeals. So I think he has one more year before the statute of limitations runs out for this case, and two appeals in that time in Italy, which is infamous for these court cases that go on and on and on. And his lawyers are extremely adept at prolonging cases, so I doubt very much Berlusconi is going to go behind bars, at least for this case.

Werman: Right, but there is still the sex with an underage prostitute case that's still lingering. I suppose that could result in some jail time.

Williams: Yes, that case is still pending and he could well do time for that, depending on whether or not they find him guilty.

Werman: Megan Williams speaking with us from Rome. Thanks so much.

Williams: Thanks, Marco.