Getting Jail Time in Italy

So here’s a question for you: When exactly do you think Silvio Berlusconi, the longtime Italian prime minister, and now just your basic ordinary tax-cheating citizen, will go to prison? Because a year of prison is the sentence for the tax fraud charge of which Berlusconi has, much to his amazement and usual sense of outrage, just been convicted.

If your answer was Never, not a day in prison because the guy’s a multi-billionaire media mogul who more than likely got his start thanks to mafia connections—you were right on the money, pun absolutely intended. In Italy the only people imprisoned are (a) those without clout, (b) those without Italian citizenship, and (c) those without guilt (cf: Amanda Knox). Being guilty in Italy actually improves your chances of acquittal by a huge margin because extreme guilt tends to sharpen the desire for gifted and expensive lawyers—and gifted and expensive lawyers, in turn, can drag out cases or appeals of untoward verdicts for so many years that the statute of limitations for whatever crime one chose to commit runs out.

That’s when the judge declares the guilty party free to resume his guilt-laden career. Or reduces the sentence of the guilty party. After sentence reduction—Silvio just had his cut by three years, thanks to some amnesty law—the guilty party then appeals that reduced sentence, forever if need be. And so it goes.

Now no one in Italy—and by no one I’m definitely including the former prime minister himself—actually believes Silvio is innocent of tax fraud either this time around, or any time around. Years and years ago, when he was already running Italy and the rumors of his graceful ability to sidestep taxes were pretty widespread, I asked him about his special talent. Silvio’s response: “But no one in Italy pays taxes!!” (This remark did not go unnoticed among his countrymen. However, the prime minister happened to be perfectly right in his assessment. Or rather almost right: No one in Italy paid taxes—if they could avoid it. Which meant schoolteachers and low-level government officials had to pay taxes because their wages were a matter of record. But the rich did not. And still do not, for the most part—even under the less excessive and more responsible regime of the technocrat Mario Monti).

So what are we to make of Berlusconi’s recent remark “I was sure I would get acquitted from this totally unreal prosecution”?

Well, he had a right to his indignation, in a way. Analyzers of the fraud timeline may notice that just two days before the verdict, Berlusconi announced that come what may, declared guilty or innocent by the court, he, Silvio, would never run again.

This was a pretty public bribe. And unfortunately for Berlusconi, no one really believed him. Mario Monti, in large part because he inherited a wreck of a country from Berlusconi, is no longer popular, so there’s going to be a vacancy one day. Silvio, on the other hand, has never entirely disenchanted his countrymen. His affair with a teenager, another charge that is likely to get him only theoretical jail time: no problem. His bunga-bunga parties with hookers: not an issue. The guy may be a dog, goes the thinking, but more power to the kennel.

So now “the most persecuted person in the world,” as Silvio likes to call himself, has triumphed again. That may not be the way the media headlines read (“Berlusconi Convicted of Fraud,” claims the Wall Street Journal) or understand the situation. But that’s what happened. His best friend, Fedele Confalonieri, a toady who is chairman of Berlusconi’s media empire, was acquitted of all charges.

Berlusconi has seen the future. It is very likely his—once again.


Photo Credit: European People's Party

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