L'Oreal fraud trial caught up in secret tapes scandal

1st July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Lawyers for a photographer accused of defrauding France's richest woman demanded his trial be suspended Thursday after the case got tangled up in a political scandal.

Celebrity photographer Francois-Marie Banier went on trial accused by the daughter of L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt of cheating her mother of one billion euros (1.2 billion dollars).

His lawyer Herve Temime said Banier could not get a fair trial in what he called a "nauseating" affair, complicated by a tax evasion scandal also affecting the 87-year-old Bettencourt.

French media last month published details of telephone conversations secretly recorded by Bettencourt's butler, which allegedly revealed she was plotting to evade taxes on her huge fortune.

Temime complained at the court at Nanterre, west of Paris, that the tapes had been leaked to media before they were shown to trial lawyers. "We no longer have the conditions for a fair trial."

He demanded that the "nauseating and impossible" case, tainted by the political scandal and the secret recordings, be postponed while he studies the new evidence.

"Is it any less nauseating that a man exploits a woman and profits from her?" responded Olivier Metzner, lawyer for daughter Francoise Meyers-Bettencourt who is bringing the case against Banier.

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

The hearing was adjourned and a decision on a postponement was due to be announced at 4:00 pm (1400 GMT).

The furore over the tapes has sparked calls for the resignation of Labour Minister Eric Woerth, accused of a conflict of interest because his wife worked for Bettencourt's estate while he was budget minister in charge of 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.

With pressure on Woerth growing, Le Monde newspaper reported on Thursday that he had dined with Bettencourt in January 2008. Woerth's office confirmed the dinner but dismissed it as "nothing incredible."

A state prosecutor told the court that authorities were investigating the recordings, amid concerns that the content may not be admissible since it was obtained illegally.

Banier, 63, sat in the courtroom, drawing in a sketchbook as he waited for the trial to start and then sat solemnly listening as the arguments were heard. Neither Bettencourt nor her daughter were present.

A friend of France's richest woman, Banier is accused of "fraudulently" exploiting Bettencourt, who gave him masterpiece paintings including works by Matisse and Mondrian, cash and insurance policies worth a billion euros.

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

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.

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.

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

© 2010 AFP

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