Ruling expected soon in Berlusconi tax fraud case

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ROME (AP) — Silvio Berlusconi's lawyers made a final attempt Wednesday to overturn a tax fraud conviction that threatens to derail the ex-premier's two-decade old political career banning him from holding public office, urging Italy's highest court to either acquit the business mogul or at least order a fresh trial in the long-running case stemming from film rights acquisitions in his media empire.

Lawyers for Berlusconi and three other defendants wrapped up eight hours of arguments before the Court of Cassation before presiding judge Antonio Esposito called it a day. Esposito announced that the five-member panel will begin deliberations at noon (1000 GMT) Thursday after a night's rest, given the "importance" of the case.

If the conviction sticks, the ruling could weaken the fragile government of Premier Enrico Letta, which is struggling to pass measures to help Italy out of recession. Berlusconi's conservatives are Letta's main coalition partner, and there are fears that some in the premier's own squabbling center-left party could object to having to depend on a ruling alliance whose leader would be criminally disgraced if the conviction is upheld upon final appeal.

Berlusconi has urged his supporters not to let the ruling interfere with the government, but analysts said the situation is volatile. Center-right lawmakers recently slowed work in Parliament to protest the high court's decision to take the case in July instead of the fall.

Berlusconi and three others were convicted in October of tax fraud in the purchase of TV rights for Berlusconi's Mediaset network. Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in prison with a five-year ban on public office, which was confirmed on appeal earlier this year.

The ex-premier's defense team seemed to be hedging its bets.

Lawyer Franco Coppi repeatedly cited Berlusconi's contention that he no longer was involved in the business dealings of his media empire after he entered politics 20 years ago — including when he was premier during the years covered by the alleged fraud.

The Cassation judges must decide "is it true or not that Berlusconi has dedicated himself full-time to politics" in the years covered by the alleged tax fraud that haven't yet expired due to statute of limitations, Coppi said.

"Naturally, we are asking annulment" of the conviction, Coppi told the court.

But then he essentially invited the court to consider a kind of Plan B, saying that if they weren't convinced of Berlusconi's innocence, they should order a new trial. The only reason for that, Coppi argued, would be for a new judge to determine if perhaps the case really didn't deal with a crime at all and was simply episodes of tax evasion to be handled not by prosecutors but by tax authorities, who could order a fine.

Any new trial would likely chip away at another year of alleged tax fraud covered by statute of limitations, and any resulting conviction could result in a more lenient punishment, perhaps even no ban on public office holding, legal experts have said.

On Tuesday, the state prosecutor, while arguing for the conviction to be upheld, recommended that the public office ban be reduced to three years. Coppi told reporters that reflected a "blatant error" in the sentencing.

If Italy's highest court upholds the lower court rulings, Berlusconi would lose his Senate seat and be barred from running in elections for a public office during the ban. The court also could decide to overturn the convictions, which is rare, or — as Coppi posited — it could send the case back for another appeal if it finds an error in the lower courts' proceedings.

Berlusconi's defense team — which also included long-time defender Niccolo Ghedini — argued its case for some 2 ½ hours Wednesday afternoon.

The defendants were convicted of a scheme to inflate the prices of the TV rights and to pocket the difference. But Berlusconi's lawyers argued that the lower courts had convicted their client without any hard evidence.

Ghedini argued that in effect, the lower courts had concluded that because Berlusconi is such a "sharp businessman, how could he have not known the prices were inflated?"

Coppi asserted that "Berlusconi doesn't get involved himself with these things, if he ever did" in running his Mediaset businesses.

Political foes of Berlusconi have been skeptical of his claim that that he truly divorced himself from running his companies, alleging that he never resolved questions of potential conflict of interests in owning Italy's three biggest TV networks and, during this three stints as premier, indirectly wielding control and influence over Mediaset's main competitor — state TV's three networks.