ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s constitutional court on Wednesday rejected a bid by Silvio Berlusconi to block a tax fraud conviction linked to his Mediaset television empire, clearing the way for a final verdict and deepening uncertainty facing Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
Berlusconi issued a statement immediately after the ruling, saying the decision was contrary to good sense and legal precedent but would not affect his support for Letta’s left-right coalition government.
The 76-year-old media tycoon is not in government but Letta depends on his People of Freedom (PDL) party to survive after deadlocked elections in February that left his own centre-left Democratic Party (PD) short of a viable majority in parliament.
Despite Berlusconi’s assurance of continued support, the ruling is likely to increase tension in the coalition, which is already struggling to contain serious differences over core economic policies.
Ministers from the PDL issued a statement saying they were “shocked, bitter and profoundly worried” at the verdict, which comes ahead of an even more widely anticipated ruling on Monday on charges that Berlusconi paid for sex with a minor.
He has frequently attacked what he calls leftist magistrates who he says want to eliminate him from politics.
There was little immediate reaction from the PD apart from a statement saying the decision should be respected and calling on PDL lawmakers to “lower their tone”.
Berlusconi’s lawyers had challenged a ruling in Milan last year that sentenced him to four years in prison with a five year ban on holding public office after it found him complicit in tax fraud at Mediaset.
They argued the case was flawed because judges had refused to allow a delay on March 1, 2010, for Berlusconi, who was prime minister at the time, to attend a cabinet meeting.
The constitutional court ruled the judges in the original case had been within their rights to reject Berlusconi’s assertion that the cabinet meeting constituted a so-called “legitimate impediment” to the hearing.
It also noted he had been given several opportunities to agree a date and had called the cabinet meeting despite declaring his availability for a hearing on the same day.
Had the constitutional court accepted Berlusconi’s argument, the trial would probably have been restarted and run into the statute of limitations, preventing a verdict ever being reached.
A definitive verdict in the case, in which Berlusconi was accused of inflating the price of broadcasting rights contracts to skim off cash for illegal slush funds, rests on the outcome of a final appeal expected later this year.
But Wednesday’s ruling adds to the picture of political disarray in Italy after the deadlocked election which was marked by public anger at prolonged recession and a stream of scandals.
Lawyers consider that Berlusconi is unlikely to serve any actual jail time, whatever the result of the appeal, but fallout from a final conviction would be unpredictable, and he would not be able to return to government for five years.
Berlusconi’s importance to the centre right was underlined by the result of local elections this month in which the PDL suffered heavy losses that were attributed in large part to his absence from the campaign.
Wednesday’s ruling is only one of a series of potentially explosive cases against Berlusconi on accusations ranging from paying for sex with a minor to bribing political opponents, which could seriously test the stability of the government.
The most serious is the verdict expected on Monday on charges that Berlusconi paid for sex with former nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, better known under her stage name “Ruby the Heartstealer”, when she was under 18.
Prosecutors have asked for a six year total jail sentence for that charge and for a related one that he abused the powers of his office to have El Mahroug released from police custody when she was detained in an unrelated theft case.
Berlusconi has denied all the charges and his Mediaset television stations have broadcast detailed reports rebutting the accusations as part of a campaign against the magistrates.
Additional reporting by Francesca Piscioneri; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alison Williams