Italo court convicts Berlusconi of fraud

TV mogul to appeal against conviction

ROME

Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to four years in jail in a tax fraud case centered around multimillion-dollar Hollywood deals inked by the former Italian prime minister’s Mediaset TV empire.

The Milan court’s verdict on Friday marks the first time the 76-year-old billionaire media mogul, known as the “Teflon Tycoon,” has been convicted in a long series of trials over nearly two decades.

But the ruling does not mean Berlusconi will go to jail anytime soon. He has the right to appeal twice before the verdict becomes final.

Berlusconi’s lawyers called the verdict “absolutely incredible” and said they will appeal.

The trial stems from a reported €470 million ($678 million) in movie rights purchased by Mediaset from Hollywood studios, including Paramount and Fox, through offshore companies during the 1990s to allegedly evade taxes and create a slush fund.

The court also handed Hollywood-based producer and sales agent Frank Agrama a three-year sentence and acquitted Mediaset chairman Fedele Confalonieri, for whom prosecutors had sought three years and four months in jail.

Berlusconi and Agrama have long maintained their innocence in this case.

The court also ordered Berlusconi and his co-defendants to pay damages of $12.96 million to Italo tax authorities.

Berlusconi is also on trial in Milan on separate charges of having sex with an underage girl, which he also denies.

The tax fraud ruling comes two days after Berlusconi announced he would not run in Italy’s national elections early next year.

Shares in Mediaset, Italy’s top commercial broadcast group, fell as much as 3% on the Milan bourse after the verdict was announced.

Mediaset’s earnings and share value are being battered by a double-digit advertising downturn and TV audience fragmentation due to Italy’s digital switchover. As a result Mediaset’s Medusa film unit has scaled back investments and stopped buying movies on the international market. The company is also in talks to sell assets, including movie theater loop The Space in an effort to raise cash.

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