Italian court insists Berlusconi devised tax fraud

Italian supreme court defends upholding Berlusconi's conviction; says he devised tax fraud

Associated Press

ROME (AP) -- Italy's supreme court Thursday defended its decision to uphold the tax fraud conviction of Silvio Berlusconi, saying the evidence was clear that the former premier had devised a scheme to help his media empire pay less tax.

As required by law, Italy's Court of Cassation released a written document explaining its Aug. 1 decision to uphold a guilty ruling by an appellate court. The judges also upheld a four-year prison term and a ban on public office, although they ordered another court to establish the length of the ban.

The center-right leader claims he's the victim of magistrates who sympathize with the left. The Cassation ruling cannot be appealed in Italy, but Berlusconi's backers are scouring the court's 208-page explanation to bolster a planned bid at the European Court of Human Rights.

Berlusconi said Thursday in an interview with a show on one of his networks that the Cassation decision was "unreal, based on nothing."

The Cassation judges described Berlusconi as the "mastermind of a mechanism" to artificially inflate the amounts paid for film rights by his Mediaset media empire, reducing the company's tax liabilities over a period of years. Rejecting Berlusconi's claim that he wasn't directly involved in the running of Mediaset while in politics, the judges wrote that he was "perfectly" aware of the fraud and its benefits to his company.

Berlusconi's lawyers in a statement derided the high court's rationale as a mere "collage of earlier decisions." Berlusconi's political aides argued that Berlusconi's rights were violated because the lower court that found him guilty didn't grant his requests for postponements of hearing and didn't allow all the witnesses to testify, among other claims.

The Court of Cassation defended the Milan appeals court's decision, saying Berlusconi's presence in Rome wasn't always essential, and noted that some of the appointments, like a Cabinet meeting, were scheduled after the court calendar had been set.

A lawmaker in Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, Daniela Santanche, urged a Senate panel that must rule on whether to uphold the ban on public office to avoid "mutilating democracy" by refusing to strip him of his Senate seat. The Senate panel will formally consider what to do when it convenes on Sept. 9 and its members will be examining the Cassation's rationale.

Some of Berlusconi's allies have threatened to yank their support for Premier Enrico Letta's government if the media mogul is forced to relinquish his seat. Letta's center-left Democratic Party depends on Berlusconi's party in an unusual and tense coalition of liberals and conservatives. If Berlusconi's ministers quit the Cabinet or his lawmakers refuse to back the government in Parliament, Letta's four-month-old government would collapse even as it struggles to prod Italy out of a stubborn recession.

The Senate panel could also defy the court and refuse to strip Berlusconi of his seat. If that happens, it could be up to Italy's Constitutional Court to decide whether the courts or parliament has the final say in Berlusconi's political destiny.

_____

Associated Press reporter Michele Barbero contributed to this report.

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