Berlusconi Companies Gained $1.4 Billion Due to His Political Ties, Report Says

Silvio Berlusconi - H 2013
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Silvio Berlusconi - H 2013

The news may help soften the blow from ongoing political problems, including Thursday's appeal of a major conviction.

ROME -- Italy's billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi started 2014 the way he ended the previous year, with legal woes dominating his attention. But a new study suggests Berlusconi's political career at least earned him enough extra money to soften the legal blows.

Berlusconi's lawyers on Thursday -- the first official business day of the new year in Italy -- officially filed an appeal of his conviction for abuse of power and paying a minor for sex. The case is centered around charges that the 77-year-old Berlusconi paid erotic dancer Karima el-Mahroug (best known as Ruby the Heartstealer), 17 years old at the time, for sex and then lied to authorities to get el-Mahroug off on theft charges.

Berlusconi was found guilty in June and ordered to serve a seven-year prison term. He also would be banned from politics for life. He had until June of this year to file an appeal, and his lawyers said he is calling for the case to be thrown out on the grounds that no crime took place: Berlusconi and el-Mahroug admit Berlusconi gave her gifts but deny they had sexual relations, and Berlusconi dismisses the abuse of power charges as politically motivated.

Meanwhile, a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. said that Berlusconi's television and cinema empire benefited "substantially" from his political roles, with major players either buying up ad time on his Mediaset television networks or entering into business partnerships with Berlusconi in order to curry favor.

How much was that worth? The report estimated the benefits totaled at least $1.4 billion (€1 billion) over the two decades since Berlusconi first entered politics, with significant spikes during the periods when Berlusconi was prime minister (from 1994-95, 2001-06 and 2008-11).

"We document a significant pro-Mediaset bias in the allocation of advertising spending during Berlusconi's political tenure," the think tank said in a statement. The report was written by UC Berkeley economist Stefano della Vigna and Eliana La Ferrara from Bocconi University in Milan.

The report did not address possible political benefits Berlusconi received from positive news coverage on Mediaset's networks, or Mediaset's benefits from the decisions Berlusconi made when he had control over Italian state broadcaster RAI.

Berlusconi's political opponents have often attacked him for conflict of interest issues while he was prime minister, but he always denied reaping any financial benefit from his political influence.

In addition to the charges of abuse of power and paying for sex with a minor, Berlusconi faces trials alleging illegal wire taps and bribery. Last year, he was definitively convicted of tax fraud and false accounting, resulting in his being stripped of his Senate seat and ordered to serve a year of house arrest or community service.

Twitter: @EricJLyman