Italy's Berlusconi Mulling Plan to Place Mediaset Empire in Blind Trust

Silvio Berlusconi - Political Plans and Legal Charges
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Italian media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has often been seen as the teflon media mogul - always facing legal and other charges, but never really facing consequences. In Oct. 2012 though, a court sentenced the head of media group Mediaset, whose stock has been dropping amid weak ad trends, to four years in prison in a tax evasion case - marking the first time he is facing time behind bars. And just before Christmas, prosecutors also called for a prison sentence of at least one year for Berlusconi on charges of publishing information about a political rival that was obtained illegally. The three-time prime minister, meanwhile, announced he would run for a fourth term in early 2013 after having left political office in late 2011.

The billionaire media mogul is seeking a fourth term as prime minister. Eliminating conflict of interest concerns could give him a boost.

ROME – Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi said Thursday he is studying the possibility of placing his assets -- including the Mediaset television and cinema empire he controls -- into a blind trust if he wins next month’s elections and becomes prime minister for the fourth time.

Berlusconi is currently running second in the polls, behind former minister Pier Luigi Bersani. But he could increase his support levels if he announces plans to put the 40 percent stake in Mediaset Berlusconi and his family own into a trust, removing the controversial conflict of interest allegations that have dogged Berlusconi since he first entered politics nearly 20 years ago.

Berlusconi has talked about addressing the conflict of interest problems before: when he ran for his second term as prime minister in 2001, he promised to sell or place his assets in a trust within 100 days of taking office if he won. But the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. fell within that period, and Berlusconi’s vocal support for then-President George W. Bush at the time drove his approval levels sky high, and the plan fell by the wayside.

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But the latest plans, as reported in the Italian press, are far more detailed than his promises from a dozen years ago. The reports mention an anonymous advisor reportedly associated with the Rothschild Group, who would draft a plan to give control of most of Berlusconi’s assets in a trust managed by an autonomous board.

The plan may also make more economic sense than it would have in 2001, since, with Mediaset struggling economically, the board could elect to sell shares and diversify Berlusconi’s portfolio without it reflecting on Berlusconi’s faith in the company.

Mediaset has been losing money in recent quarters, amid weak economic growth in Italy and eroding ad revenue. The company -- which includes three national networks in Italy and one in Spain, film production and distribution company Medusa, and other holdings -- saw its shares set all-time lows late last year. But they have surged since then, gaining 67 percent since their all-time low in November, on speculation that Berlusconi’s candidacy could be good for the company. The shares closed trading Thursday up slightly in heavy trading.