Berlusconi Seen Skirting Jail as Threats of Conviction Mount

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s political future is more at risk than his freedom from the outcome of a spate of pending corruption trials, including today’s ruling on charges of prostitution with a minor, criminal lawyers said.

The three-time premier, 76, faces a verdict in Milan on charges he paid a teen-aged nightclub dancer for sex, and abused the power of his office to cover it up. Berlusconi, who has weathered more than a dozen criminal trials, is facing charges in separate cases for tax fraud and illegal use of wiretaps.

“Even in case of definitive convictions, he would hardly go to prison because detention laws are lenient with people over 70 and for short jail sentences,” said Andrea Castaldo, a criminal lawyer and professor at the University of Salerno, Italy.

The Milan ruling comes at a time when Berlusconi’s support is key to the survival of Italy’s government led by Prime Minister Enrico Letta. Flexible sentencing rules, particularly for defendants over the age of 70 and on convictions shorter than three years may help keep Berlusconi out of jail. Still, two of the cases call for a public-office ban, an outcome that could tear apart Letta’s coalition of rivals.

Sexual Relationship

Milan prosecutor Ilda Boccassini alleges that in 2010 Berlusconi paid for sex with Karima El Mahroug, a nightclub performer who danced under the name of Ruby Heart-Stealer and was 17 at the time. Berlusconi is also charged with helping secure her release from police custody on an unrelated theft charge later that year. The panel of judges started deliberations at about 10 a.m. local time and the ruling is expected later today.

Both Berlusconi and El Mahroug denied having a sexual relationship. El Mahroug said in an interview with television network SkyTG24 last year that Berlusconi had given her 7,000 euros ($9,300) to help her start a business after she attended parties at his villa near Milan.

“The situation is unique, because the alleged injured party, Ruby, denies Berlusconi paid her for sex,” said Castaldo. “It seems to me evidence in the Ruby case, also for what concerns charges of abuse of power, is objectively lacking.”

On May 13, Boccassini requested Berlusconi serve six years in jail and be permanently barred from public office if convicted. Berlusconi would have two chances to appeal before the sentence would be carried out, a process that that could take years.

Twenty Trials

Asked if Berlusconi was optimistic about the outcome of today’s ruling, defense attorney Piero Longo said outside the Milan courthouse that he was a “realist.” His comments were broadcast by SkyTG24.

Berlusconi, who says prosecutors are out to destroy him politically, has faced at least 20 trials since entering politics in 1994. In some cases, he avoided definitive convictions because of the statute of limitations. He also benefited from an amnesty law and had one case dropped after his government decriminalized some white-collar crimes. He was also acquitted in at least five cases. By his own reckoning two years ago, he has faced 105 probes and trials, 2,500 court hearings and spent more than 300 million euros in legal fees.

‘Unpredictable Behavior’

Last month a Milan court upheld Berlusconi’s October conviction for tax fraud in a film-rights case involving his Mediaset SpA broadcaster. The conviction carries a four-year sentence and a five-year ban from public office. Berlusconi, who has denied the charges, has the right to a final appeal to the country’s highest court, whose definitive ruling may come before the end of the year, according to his lawyer Franco Coppi.

“Berlusconi’s behavior may become more unpredictable in the months ahead as his political strategy will be largely conditioned by his own legal troubles,” Wolfango Piccoli, managing director of Teneo Intelligence, wrote in a June 20 note to investors. “However, it is not in Berlusconi’s interest to pull the plug on the government” before the final ruling in the Mediaset case.

Sentencing Guidelines

Even if the tax-fraud conviction is upheld before the statute of limitations expires next year, Berlusconi is unlikely to serve time. His four-year jail term would be eligible for reduction to one year under a 2006 sentencing law aimed at stemming overcrowding in jails. Defendants can also be offered community service instead of prison for convictions of less than three years, said criminal lawyer Maurizio Bellacosa.

In the Mediaset case, Berlusconi would also benefit from flexible sentencing guidelines for those over 70, who are generally spared jail if sentenced to less than four years. The age lenience would not apply to a prostitution conviction.

“There would be a minimum risk of jail” in the Ruby case, Bellacosa said, adding that Berlusconi’s legal team still “has some cards to play.”

Proceedings against Berlusconi, who once called the judiciary more dangerous than the Mafia, have accelerated since he resigned the premiership at the height of the debt crisis in November 2011. The trials didn’t derail his political comeback this year, when a surge in his support left him close to winning February’s general election and denied Letta’s Democratic Party a parliamentary majority.

Berlusconi has drawn thousands to rallies against the judiciary. About 39 percent of Italians said magistrates are politically biased against Berlusconi, according to a Demopolis survey for television station La7 last month.

A conviction in the sex-with-minor trial today may weaken Letta’s government although it wouldn’t put its survival at risk, Giovanni Orsina, professor of politics at the Luiss University in Rome, said in an interview with Francine Lacqua and Guy Johnson on Bloomberg Television’s “The Pulse” today. “This is certainly not going to be an element of strength for Letta but I think the government will survive.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.