Berlusconi Escapes Corruption Conviction: What He Faces Next

The former Italian prime minister narrowly escaped a corruption conviction in a case that even his lawyers thought he couldn't win. Barbie Latza Nadeau on the teflon P.M.'s next trial.

02.25.12 8:51 PM ET

Silvio Berlusconi may have lost his job as prime minister, but his Teflon shield apparently still works. On Saturday, a three-judge panel in Milan threw out a corruption case against the 75-year-old media mogul, but not because Berlusconi was found innocent. Instead, they ruled that the statute of limitations on the five-year trial had run out.

In this particular trial, one of four pending cases against Berlusconi currently on the court dockets, the media mogul was accused of allegedly paying his British lawyer David Mills a sum of $600,000 to lie on the stand in 1997 and 1998 about two offshore accounts he had set up for Berlusconi’s Fininvest company. In 2009, Mills was convicted of accepting the sum from Berlusconi and sentenced to four and a half years in prison. He never went to jail, and Italy’s high court then threw out the conviction on appeal in 2010, again because the statute of limitations had run out.

Berlusconi maintains that while Mills did work for his Fininvest firm, he never met him in person and never paid him to lie about anything. Instead, Berlusconi says, the British solicitor received the $600,000 from an Italian arms dealer for a shady business contract and lied about the money coming from Berlusconi to avoid British taxes. After his conviction was thrown out, Mills testified in Berlusconi’s trial via satellite link, saying he had indeed lied about the source of the cash, though few believed the testimony was heartfelt.

Curiously, Saturday’s sentencing date was far short of the May deadline for the statute of limitations in this particular case, according to court records. The judges will issue their reasoning for throwing out the case, but even the prosecutor Fabio De Pasquale was shocked with the judges’ decision. “It’s useless to comment,” he told reporters as he left the courtroom. “What good would it do?”

Even Berlusconi and his henchmen thought he would be convicted. On the eve of the verdict, the former P.M. and his allies seemed resigned to the notion that a decision against him had already been made. Berlusconi told reporters that he had been the most persecuted person in the world—and lamented that he has spent more than a half-million dollars on lawyers in the last two decades since entering politics.

“The Mills trial is just one of numerous invented proceedings against me. In total, more than 100 legal procedures, over 900 prosecutors have busied themselves with me and with my company,” he said in a prepared statement. “These persecutions against me are not just a world record but a record for the universe and the entire solar system.”

With the Mills case now off his mind, the former prime minister can focus on his remaining trials. In one, he is facing charges of tax fraud and corruption, and in another, charges that he leaked sensitive information garnered from investigatory wiretaps to investors. He also faces charges of abuse of office and procuring the services of an underage prostitute known as Ruby the Heartstealer. That trial will reconvene in March with a verdict expected sometime during the summer.

Even though Berlusconi should be breathing easy now that the Mills case has been thrown out, he still isn’t happy. “We would have preferred that the judge had ruled that no crime had been committed,” his lawyer Niccolò Ghedini said on Italian television. “Still, this is not an unimportant ruling.”

Whether he is just as lucky for the rest of his legal battles will be the true test of the strength of his Teflon shield.