ROME — Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media baron and former premier, sometimes quipped that he was running out of money after two decades of steadily paying millions of euros (dollars) to a stable of Italy's leading lawyers to defend him in a raft of criminal cases.
The team earned its keep. Until now he has always been acquitted or they have kept the case running so long that the statute of limitations has expired.
This time, though, Berlusconi has reached his final appeal and on Tuesday could see Italy's highest criminal court uphold a tax fraud conviction stemming from a sale of film rights. Though he is unlikely to serve any of a four-year prison term, a five-year ban on holding public office would derail his career as Italy's unchallenged conservative leader.
With his back to the wall, Berlusconi for the first time has reached beyond his trusted legal team, turning to the man known as the high court `'magician," – Franco Coppi, famed for zeroing in on the kind of technicalities that could persuade the criminal tribunal of last resort to toss out the conviction earlier this year by a lower-level appeals court.
Coppi has a track record – he won acquittals for Giulio Andreotti in the late politician's sensational trials for allegedly consorting with the Mafia.
Coppi is "like a magician who can pull a rabbit out of a hat," said Alessia Sorgato, a Milan-based attorney, who has argued alongside him in the Court of Cassation in Rome.
If the court upholds the conviction, even if the prison sentence is suspended, Berlusconi will be immediately stripped of his Senate seat and barred from running for any election. If that happens, some of his loyalists have warned, they will withdraw support in Parliament for Premier Enrico Letta's fragile coalition government, a development that could spook financial markets just as Italy tries to shake off a stubborn recession.
Until now, Berlusconi had relied heavily on defense lawyer Niccolo Ghedini, a prominent lawmaker in the media mogul's center-right party. Ghedini is closely identified by Berlusconi critics with efforts to craft laws they contend were tailor-made to help him in his legal problems.
But colleagues on Italy's criminal law circuit say in the final reckoning, the 74-year-old Coppi is the one you want defending you.
Sorgato, in a telephone interview, lauded Coppi's "ability to pinpoint the crucial points that are fundamental," a skill that could prove key in arguing the lower court failed to correctly follow judicial procedures.
Coppi is renowned for `'examining every crease in every page" of documentation from the lower appellate trial, observed Francesco Pizzetti, an expert in constitutional law and professor at Rome's LUISS university. "He has an incredibly iron-clad memory that can find, in thousands of pages, of files, that element" that will win clients a new trial, Pizzetti said in a telephone interview.
Coppi's office last week said he was too busy preparing for this week's hearing to come to the phone to discuss the case.
Coppi's most celebrated client was the late Andreotti, the former seven-time premier and Christian Democrat leader who was prosecuted in Sicily for alleged collusion with the Mafia. In that case, Sicilian prosecutors relied heavily on a turncoat's insistence that Andreotti received a "kiss of honor" from a fugitive Cosa Nostra boss.
Berlusconi was one of four defendants convicted in a scheme that involved inflating the price his media empire paid for TV rights to U.S. movies and pocketing the difference.
Italy's complicated judicial system allows two levels of appeals, with the final say decided by the Court of Cassation. Sorgato said the court could throw out Berlusconi's conviction, but such rulings are rare. Another possibility is that it could order a new appeals trial before a different judge. If that happened, the statute of limitations would likely kick in for at least some of the alleged offenses, resulting in a milder sentence if Berlusconi is convicted again, and maybe sparing him the ban on holding public office.
In a separate criminal case yet to come to appeal, Berlusconi faces a possible lifetime ban on holding public office if a lower-court conviction for paying for sex with a minor and using his office to cover it up is upheld. That verdict in June also dealt him a seven-year prison sentence.