Shamed ex-minister implicates former French PM in tax fraud case

Cahuzac

Cahuzac

Former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac on Monday implicated a former French prime minister at the start of a high-profile tax fraud and money laundering case in Paris.

Cahuzac, who is on trial for hiding his wealth in tax havens for years, told judges he opened his first secret bank account in Switzerland in 1992 in order to fund the political activities of Michel Rocard.

Rocard served as prime minister under former president François Mitterrand between 1988 and 1991. He then went on to become the leader of the Socialist Party and a European Member of Parliament.

Cahuzac claimed on Monday that US-pharmaceutical firm Pfizer made two clandestine payments to Rocard using the Swiss account via an unnamed intermediary in 1993.

“The money could not come from the laboratory’s official bank accounts,” the disgraced ex-minister said.

Charges of tax fraud and money laundering forced Cahuzac to resign in 2013 in one of the biggest political scandals under Socialist President Francois Hollande.

At the time, Cahuzac was leading the government’s fight against tax evasion.

The 64-year-old former cosmetic surgeon is accused of concealing at least 687,000 euros income from tax authorities between 2009 and 2012.

He’s also accused of laundering money between 2003 and 2013 through foreign bank accounts in Switzerland and Singapore, and phony companies in Panama and the Seychelles.

He faces up to seven years in prison and a 1 million-euro fine if convicted. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

Ex-wife also on trial

The fraud helped him finance a lavish lifestyle, such as expensive vacations, court documents show. Investigators discovered that Cahuzac paid bills to one luxury hotel for a total of 127,000 euros for several stays with his ex-wife and children.

His former spouse wife Patricia Menard, as well as a banker and a legal advisor, are also facing money laundering charges at the same trial.

She is accused of hiding 2.5 million euros from French tax authorities and laundering money in the British tax haven of the Isle of Man and in Switzerland, allowing her to buy two London apartments estimated at around 3 million euros overall.

With the French presidential election eight months away, the legal drama is sure to revive voters’ memories of the scandal that tarnished Hollande’s mandate just a few months after he was elected in 2012.

The scandal was magnified by the fact that it involved France’s top tax-enforcement official and that as a minister Cahuzac publicly lied to Parliament and to the French people, although French law does not sanction perjury.

‘A lying spiral’

When press reports first revealed the scandal back in 2012, Cahuzac was sponsoring a bill to reinforce the fight against tax evasion and fraud.

For months, Cahuzac strongly denied any wrongdoing, even to Hollande and government colleagues. He eventually admitted to the fraud in April 2013, saying he had been “trapped in a lying spiral.”

The Cahuzac scandal damaged Hollande’s approval rating, which took a 13-point dive in the first quarter of 2013. It also had the effect of increasing public mistrust of politicians and fuelled demands for more transparency.

On Monday, the Paris prosecutor’s office said it requested a criminal trial for former President Nicolas Sarkozy over suspected illegal overspending on his failed 2012 re-election campaign. It’s now up to the judges to decide whether Sarkozy must stand trial.