Feature

The Trials of Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi is known as a master of legal maneuvering, and he’s certainly had plenty of time to practice. The 73-year-old Italian prime minister has been visited by police 587 times, been part of 2,500 hearings, and spent a quarter of a billion dollars to keep himself out of jail. Here are some highlights of an eventful legal life.

TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images
TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

1978: Berlusconi founds Mediaset, the television company that would become the largest in Italy and eventually make him Italy’s richest man. He made his first fortune in the construction business but worked a number of odd jobs earlier in his career, including selling vacuums and crooning on a cruise ship. Mediaset later becomes part of Berlusconi’s business empire Fininvest, which owns nearly 150 companies.

1990: Berlusconi is convicted of giving false testimony in a courtroom in Verona. In the late 1980s, three journalists had accused Berlusconi of involvement with a shadowy and illegal Masonic Lodge called Propaganda 2. In response, he sued them for libel, testifying that he was never a full member and only kept loose associations with the group. However, a parliamentary inquiry commission found that he had been a full member since 1978, leading to his conviction. The government granted him amnesty before he could be sentenced.

1991: Berlusconi wins an appeals case to become owner of Italy’s largest publishing house, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore. In 1990, both Berlusconi’s company, Fininvest, and his chief rival Carlo de Benedetti’s media giant, the CIR Group, had made bids to buy Mondadori. The courts originally awarded the company to CIR, but Fininvest eventually won — after Berlusconi allegedly loaded the judge’s wallet from an offshore account with the code name All Iberian.

1992: Italian soccer player Gianluigi Lentini gets a world-record payday when he leaves Torino F.C. for Berlusconi’s team A.C. Milan for $21 million. Prosecutors claim Berlusconi doctored the accounting on the deal, but he is never convicted because the statute of limitations has expired by the time investigators look into the case.

1994: Berlusconi is elected prime minister, having entered politics and founded his Forza Italia party only a few months earlier.

1995: Berlusconi’s coalition government collapses under the accumulated weight of scandal. His party is defeated in elections the next year.

1997: Investigation begins on Berlusconi’s holding of Spanish television station Telecinco. Prosecutors say he evaded $145 million in taxes and owned half of the company through offshore holdings; Spanish law prohibits anyone from owning more than a quarter of a television station. He is later acquitted.

1997: During the Telecinco trial, Berlusconi allegedly bribes British lawyer David Mills $600,000 to lie in court.

2001: Despite all the scandals, he is elected prime minister for a second time, running on a wildly popular platform modeled on Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, called “Contract with Italians.”

2002: After being accused of false accounting from 1986 to 1999, Berlusconi puts a stop to the cases against him by decriminalizing a number of creative accounting practices.

2003: Berlusconi helps pass an immunity law that protects the top five members of government from prosecution while they are in office.

2004: Italy’s highest court throws the immunity law out as unconstitutional.

2006: Berlusconi loses the election to Romano Prodi.

2007: The judge in the Mondadori case, Vittorio Metta, is found guilty of accepting bribes from Berlusconi’s lawyer and is sentenced to over a year in jail.

April 13, 2008: Elected prime minister a third time.

July 21, 2008: For the second time, an immunity law is passed that keeps Berlusconi out of the courtroom for as long as he is in office.

July 23, 2008: A prostitute tapes her conversation with Berlusconi’s aide, who is trying to set up a rendezvous for the prime minister. The aide warns her that Berlusconi never uses condoms.

Feb. 17, 2009: David Mills is convicted of taking bribes from Berlusconi and is sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison.

May 3, 2009: Berlusconi’s wife files for divorce after it becomes public that he has been having an affair with an 18-year-old lingerie model who calls him “papi.” The not-very-distraught Berlusconi is later photographed in his villa in Sardinia hanging out with several partially nude women and a former Czech premier.

Oct. 3, 2009: In a civil case, de Benedetti and his company, the CIR Group, is awarded over a billion dollars for lost revenue stemming from the Mondadori bribery case. Berlusconi says the ruling could bring down Fininvest, his media company.

Oct. 7, 2009: Italy’s highest court again strips Berlusconi of immunity, as it is again found to be unconstitutional. He vows to fight the charges, calling himself “invigorated” by the ruling.

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