Italian Supreme Court to Rule on Berlusconi's Fate Tuesday

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Silvio Berlusconi

The former prime minister, found guilty of tax fraud and false accounting in connection to content deals for his Mediaset giant, could face four years behind bars and a five-year ban from politics.

ROME -- After 20 years of investigations, hearings and appeals, the fate of Silvio Berlusconi could finally be decided on Tuesday.

Berlusconi, Italy’s billionaire media mogul and three-time prime minister, was last year found guilty of tax fraud and false accounting in connection with a series of deals for U.S. content for the Mediaset movie and TV giant he founded. Berlusconi allegedly created a slush fund by transferring ownership of the content between subsidiaries, saving the company as much as €300 million ($393 million) in taxes between 1994 and 1998.

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The media mogul appealed the guilty verdict, but in May a Milan court refused to hear the appeal, setting up Tuesday’s date with the Supreme Court.

The original ruling sentenced Berlusconi to four years behind bars and a five-year ban on holding public office, and one possible scenario is that the Supreme Court could uphold the verdict. If that happens, the 76-year-old Berlusconi told the center-right newspaper Libero, usually allied with him, that he would serve his time in prison rather than flee the country or negotiate to have his sentence reduced to house arrest or a term of community service based on his advanced age.

"I will not be an exile," Berlusconi said. "If the court says I have the responsibility [for what happened] I will go to jail."

But if the court feels it needs more time to reach a decision it could also delay its ruling for a few days or until after the summer break in September. The court could also send the case back to the Milan court that refused to hear it in May. Or the original verdict could be overturned.

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Whatever happens, it will be a first for Berlusconi, who, until now, had never seen one of his cases reach the Supreme Court. In two decades of legal troubles, Berlusconi was either found not guilty of charges, or his cases have been thrown out for technical reasons or because the statute of limitations expired.

Even if Berlusconi’s verdict is overturned Tuesday, he is pushing for appeals on two other convictions: a one-year prison term on charges of conducting illegal phone taps connected with Il Giornale, a newspaper he controls that is run by his brother Paolo Berlusconi, and in a high-profile case involving abuse of power and paying a minor for sex. If the ruling in the second case is held up, Berlusconi could face seven years in jail and a lifetime ban from politics.

If Tuesday’s verdict goes against Berlusconi it could spell trouble for the fragile new government led by Enrico Letta. The government, formed in April after a nine-week standoff, relies heavily on the backing of Berlusconi’s allies in parliament. But if their leader is banned from politics, the group could splinter or hold back its support for the government, leading to a collapse.

Twitter: @EricJLyman