Friend faces fraud trial over L'Oreal billionaire

1st July 2010, Comments 0 comments

A celebrity photographer goes on trial Thursday accused of cheating the ageing heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire Liliane Bettencourt out of a billion euros.

The bitter battle over the family's fortune has been complicated by a separate tax evasion scandal that hit Bettencourt this month, implicating Labour Minister Eric Woerth and embarrassing Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

The trial was due to start at 9:30 am (0730 GMT) at a court in Nanterre, west of Paris, and run to July 6, but was likely to be immediately postponed after lawyers agreed to seek an adjournment to study evidence in the tax case.

Thursday's trial pits the photographer and socialite Francois-Marie Banier, against Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, the daughter of 87-year-old Liliane, France's richest woman.

Banier, dubbed "photographer to the stars" after shooting the likes of US actor Johnny Depp and Princess Caroline of Monaco, became close friends with Bettencourt after meeting her at a dinner party in 1969.

The charge sheet accuses Banier, 63, of "fraudulently" exploiting the age and infirmity of Bettencourt, who gave him masterpiece paintings, cash and insurance policies worth a billion euros (about 1.2 billion dollars).

Both he and Liliane Bettencourt have rejected the daughter's claims and accused her of trying to cash in on her inheritance prematurely.

"I give to my loved ones and that is my choice," Le Monde newspaper quoted Bettencourt as saying recently.

Liliane Bettencourt was the sole heir of the global shampoo and beauty products company L'Oreal that her father founded. Her current fortune has been estimated at 17 billion euros (20 billion dollars).

Bettencourt-Meyers accuses Banier of swooping in after the death of her mother's husband, working to estrange her from her family and trying to persuade her to adopt him, according to court documents.

Banier told Le Monde last year that Bettencourt was sane and treated him generously as a friend. "These were gifts that, for a long time, I refused. These gifts come from a completely sane woman," he said.

If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison and a fine of 375,000 euros.

In the other scandal to hit the family, media this month published details of telephone conversations secretly recorded by Liliane Bettencourt's butler, which allegedly revealed she was plotting to evade taxes on her fortune.

That scandal dragged in the French government: minister Woerth was accused of a conflict of interest because his wife worked for Bettencourt's estate while he was budget minister in charge of policing tax fraud.

The taped conversations between Bettencourt and her financial adviser allegedly reveal that she hid 80 million euros in Swiss bank accounts while making big donations to friends in the ruling UMP party.

Bettencourt has since pledged to declare all of her foreign assets.

Barnier's lawyer Herve Temime said Tuesday he had received copies of the recordings and needed time to study them in case they affected the trial. The plaintiff's lawyer Olivier Metzner said he would not oppose a postponement.

Bettencourt's own lawyers said she would not attend Thursday's hearing.

© 2010 AFP

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