Italian Senators Debate Push to Strip Berlusconi of Seat

Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire former premier and partner in Italy’s ruling parliamentary coalition, is facing a lawmaker debate about possible conflicts of interest that could lead to his Senate expulsion.

The upper house’s Elections and Parliamentary Immunities Committee started a debate in a closed-door meeting on whether to place Berlusconi’s eligibility case before the full chamber. Under scrutiny is the potential conflict between Berlusconi’s position as a lawmaker and his control of Mediaset SpA, the country’s biggest private television company, which operates through frequencies controlled by the state.

“We will discuss it, we will study it,” Senator Felice Casson of the Democratic Party, which backs Prime Minister Enrico Letta along with Berlusconi’s People of Liberty, told reporters in Rome, declining to say how he’ll vote in the 23-member panel. “All of the elements of the defense will be seen.”

The Senate debate increases pressure on Berlusconi, whose political career is already under threat from three criminal convictions in the last year. The conflict-of-interest discussion is set to strain the two-month-old coalition of rivals that Letta relies on for his government’s survival.

The committee adjourned for the day without making a decision.

“We flagged this as a potential snag point for the government and stability,” Peter Ceretti, an analyst with Eurasia Group in New York, said yesterday. “It could be something we need to worry about. It’s not clear how all of this is going to work out.”

State Concessions

Italian law prohibits national lawmakers from holding significant state concessions. The rule, passed in 1957 to regulate eligibility for the lower house of Italy’s parliament, was adopted for the Senate in 1993. While Letta’s majority has enough votes to strike down the ineligibility motion in the committee, it’s not clear how the Democratic Party, whose lawmakers have opposed Berlusconi for 20 years, will vote.

Mediaset hasn’t operated under a concession since July 2012, the company said in a statement on its website. Since switching from analog technology to digital, the industry works with “general authorizations” from the state, it said.

The opposition’s Five Star movement will vote to declare Berlusconi ineligible, said the party’s Senator Mario Michele Giarrusso. “We ask that everyone respect the laws,” he said. The panel might instead vote to start an official review of the matter as a compromise, he said.

Berlusconi Fortune

Berlusconi, whose estimated fortune of $6.9 billion places him 177th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, accumulated his wealth through real estate, finance and media investments. Mediaset, which he built into the first nationwide private broadcaster before entering politics 20 years ago, has a market value of about 3.81 billion euros ($5 billion). Berlusconi’s Fininvest SpA owns 41 percent the Milan-based firm, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Berlusconi is appealing the guilty verdicts in tax-fraud, underage prostitution and wiretapping cases. He has denied all wrongdoing, saying the convictions are politically motivated.

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