RECORDINGS of L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt’s conversations about political dealings and Swiss bank accounts may play a key role at a trial over whether the 87-year-old was manipulated into giving a friend about €1 billion in gifts.
The tape recordings, made in secret by a former butler beginning in May 2009, have drawn politicians, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Labour Minister Eric Woerth, into the family dispute and raised questions about whether tax authorities ignored reports Bettencourt had €78 million hidden in Swiss accounts. Woerth’s wife worked for a firm managing Bettencourt’s estate.
“This is unheard of,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at Paris’s Institute of Political Studies. “This is the first and only time, all in the public sphere,” to have such a blend of business, family and political dramas.
The trial is the culmination of a private prosecution by Bettencourt’s only child, Francoise Berrencourt-Meyers, against photographer and author Francois-Marie Banier. She says Banier manipulated her mother’s infirmity for art, real estate, cash and insurance policies. The trial over those claims will provide a glimpse into one of Europe’s most prominent families. Bettencourt is estimated to be worth €17 billion and is ranked 17 on Forbes magazine’s list of the richest people in the world.
“The goal is to show that everything Mr Banier was given was a result of pressure and Madame Bettencourt’s frailty,” Olivier Metzner, a lawyer for Meyers, said before the trial opened. “Madame Bettencourt is under the total influence of her advisers and Mr Banier.”
The lawyer said he will ask to have the tapes played during the trial, allowing Bettencourt to be heard directly rather than have her mental capacity and independence assessed through comments by friends and employees. Bettencourt won’t testify and refused to submit to medical exams by doctors selected by the court and prosecutor.
At a hearing yesterday, Banier’s lawyer Herve Temime asked for a postponement to give him time to review the tapes. Metzner improperly sent “these explosive documents to the press before sending them to” other parties in the case, Temime said, adding the whole affair was “nauseating”.
Presiding judge Isabelle Prevost-Desprez yesterday afternoon postponed the trial. She told the court in Nanterre, west of Paris, that the trial was postponed so she could carry out a “complementary investigation” into the new evidence.
The court did not set a date for the resumption of the trial.
The daughter of Europe’s wealthiest woman wants the gifts returned to donate them to charity, not for herself, Metzner said. Bettencourt disputed the total value of the gifts given to Banier, saying they are closer in value to €450m, “very far from one billion,” according to a spokeswoman who declined to be identified.
Banier, 63, is a photographer, author and painter. He first met Bettencourt and her late husband in 1969, and befriended the heiress after photographing her for a 1987 profile in French society magazine, Egoiste. He has denied Meyers’ allegations, calling it “a very sad affair,” according to an interview in French newspaper Le Monde in December.
Prosecutors are investigating Bettencourt’s claims the tapes are an invasion of privacy and tax agents are looking into her filings. Bettencourt said in a June 21 email she would report all the family’s assets in foreign jurisdictions and has paid €400m in French taxes over the last decade.
The tapes “change everything”, Metzner said.
In excerpts from the tapes, made available on French website Mediapart, Bettencourt is heard asking an adviser why she should make donations to Sarkozy and Woerth, whose wife Florence advised the heiress on finances. Woerth, the budget minister at the time, had initiated a clemency programme to allow tax dodgers to report wealth hidden in foreign shelters.
Woerth’s wife has since left her advisory job. Woerth has said neither he nor his wife did anything improper and insists he had no say in decisions related to individual tax probes.
Current Budget Minister Francois Baroin has said his agents are reviewing Bettencourt’s filings and assets.
The tapes show “everyone asked her for money”, Dubois, the politics professor said, adding the recordings indicate “a fragile woman”.
According to the 2009 annual report, the Bettencourt family holds a 31% stake in L’Oreal. Meyers and her husband are directors of the world’s largest cosmetics maker, as is Bettencourt. The company isn’t involved in the case.
Banier could face as much as three years in prison and a fine of €375,000 if found guilty. Any recommendation for criminal punishment would come from the prosecutor’s office, Metzner said. Prosecutor Marie-Christine Daubigney has fought Meyers’ right to pursue a private prosecution.
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