Even if Berlusconi serves jail time, he won’t be held accountable for most of what he has done

October 26, 2012
Obsession
Euro Crunch
October 26, 2012

This item has been corrected.

It’s just as well that Silvio Berlusconi announced this week that he wouldn’t seek re-election as Italy’s prime minister. He may be going to jail instead.

A Milan court found the former three-time premier, and Italy’s richest man, guilty of tax fraud. He’s been sentenced to four years in prison (three of which were automatically pardoned under an amnesty law), and has been barred from holding political office for five years.

The case alleged that Berlusconi’s Mediaset television empire conspired to buy rights to broadcast US movies through offshore companies, while falsely declaring payments to avoid taxes. It also alleged that prices were inflated on the TV rights of thousands of films, and then re-licensed internally to Mediaset, with the €250 million ($324 million) difference pocketed.

This case has been dragging on for six years while Berlusconi argued that appearing before a court interfered with his job of running the country. Delays also resulted from an immunity law (passed on his watch) that shielded him from prosecution while prime minister. Some charges were thrown out because the statute of limitations had passed.

In reality, Berlusconi will probably never serve a day in jail. He gets two shots at appeals, which could drag on for years. He’s already 76 years old, though seems pretty durable. Despite repeated forecasts of his political demise, he managed to stay in power for 17 years and become Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since Mussolini—all while doing little for Italy.

Or really, worse than doing little. The Economist once titled a story about Berlusconi: “The man who screwed an entire country“, writing that “the Berlusconi era will haunt Italy for years to come.”

This prediction looks about right: a country struggling to emerge from a deep recession, the second biggest debtor nation in the euro zone, unemployment in the double-digits, and talk of a financial bailout.

Now, if only Berlusconi had to pay for all this.

Correction: Owing to conflicting media reports, an earlier version of this story said that Silvio Berlusconi had been barred from political office for three years instead of five. It also omitted to mention the automatic pardon of three years of his jail sentence.

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