Secret tapes scandal halts L'Oreal fraud trial
A French court on Thursday halted indefinitely the trial of a photographer accused of defrauding France's richest woman after the case got tangled up in a political scandal.
Celebrity photographer Francois-Marie Banier, 63, went on trial accused by the daughter of L'Oreal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt of cheating her aging mother out of one billion euros (1.2 billion dollars).
The court adjourned the case so that judges could examine sensitive new evidence: secret recordings of Bettencourt talking to aides, which sparked a scandal that has embarrassed the French government.
Defence lawyer Herve Temime said Banier could not get a fair trial in what he called a "nauseating and impossible" case, tainted by the political scandal and the clandestine recordings.
"Is it any less nauseating that a man exploits a woman and profits from her?" responded Olivier Metzner, lawyer for daughter Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers who brought the case against Banier.
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 to 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 said.
Presiding judge Isabelle Prevost-Desprez adjourned the trial indefinitely so she could carry out a "complementary investigation" into the tapes.
"This extra information should shed light on matters," Temime told reporters afterwards.
If convicted, Banier faces up to three years in prison and a fine of 375,000 euros (460,000 dollars).
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."
Banier sat in the courtroom, drawing in a sketchbook and joking with his lawyers 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.
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).
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.
Bettencourt-Meyers accuses him of swooping in after the death of her mother's husband, working to estrange her from her family.
Banier and Liliane Bettencourt have rejected the daughter's claims and accused her of trying to cash in on her inheritance.
Dubbed "photographer to the stars" after shooting the likes of US actor Johnny Depp and Princess Caroline of Monaco, Banier became close friends with Bettencourt after meeting her at a dinner party in 1969.
He told Le Monde last year that Bettencourt was "completely sane" and gave him the gifts as a friend.
"We have nothing to fear," his lawyer Temime told reporters. "Mr Banier wants to be judged, to be cleared of all suspicion."
© 2010 AFP