Jean-François Copé, leader of President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, is at the centre of a police investigation into the annulment, when he was budget minister, of a tax back payment of 6.2 million-euros demanded from a businessman connected to two key suspects in the so-called ‘Karachigate' illegal political funding affair.
Copé, 47, was budget minister in 2005 when Franco-Lebanese businessman Gérard Achcar was granted a reduction of 4 million euros from a total 6.2 million euros demanded by the French tax authorities after they found he had under -declared income over a period of three years, between 1998 and 2000.
Police have discovered that Copé personally intervened in the case, finding what he called "solutions" for Achcar, which were notified to the businessman via his lawyer in a letter signed by Copé in June 2005.
A spokesman for Copé, who became secretary-general of the UMP party in November 2010, and who is also MP and mayor of the town of Meaux, east of Paris, told Mediapart that he had done nothing other at the time than follow the advice of the services of the budget ministry.
Officers from the French police financial fraud squad, the Division nationale des investigations financières,(DNIF), uncovered details of the arrangement in a search of archives belonging to Ziad Takieddine, a Franco-Lebanese arms dealer and business intermediary who was last September placed under investigation - one step short of being charged - for his role in the ‘Karachigate' suspected illegal political funding scam.
Takieddine played a central role as a commission-paid intermediary in French arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the mid-1990s, the subject of a judicial investigation by Paris based judges Renaud Van Ruymbeke and Roger Le Loire. They are attempting to establish whether commissions paid during the sales were siphoned off and returned to France via secret offshore routes to fund former French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur's 1995 presidential election campaign.
Nicolas Sarkozy was Balladur's budget minister and, in 1995, his presidential campaign spokesman. Importantly, Takieddine continued to act as a key intermediary in weapons sales mounted by Sarkozy's inner circle of aides up until 2009.
Takieddine, 61, has confirmed to Mediapart that he helped Achcar in reaching a favourable settlement of the tax demand, although he denied directly seeking Copé's intervention in the matter.
Copé was budget minister between 2004 and 2007, and was government spokesman between 2002 and 2007.
Gérard Achcar is chairman of Grands Moulins du Mali (GMM), a major cereal milling business in the West African state of Mali, and is close to Nicolas Bazire, 54, another key suspect in the investigation by Van Ruymbeke and Le Loire.
Following the discovery of the documents relating to Copé's help in the tax settlement for Achcar, Takieddine's British former wife, Nicola Johnson, from whom he was divorced last year, was questioned by DNIF officers in December about what she knew of the case.
"I remember that Nicolas Bazire came to see Ziad Takieddine once, for Ziad to help him regarding Monsieur Achcar," Johnson said in her statement dated December 9th. "Monsieur Achcar had a problem with the French tax authorities. Ziad agreed to help Monsieur Achcar, on Nicolas Bazire's request. Ziad then contacted Jean-François Copé who was at that time Minister of the Budget."
Bazire's lawyer Jean-Yves Lienard did not answer Mediapart's request for a comment on the claims.
In an interview with Mediapart on December 14th, Ziad Takieddine denied making direct contact with Copé, but he confirmed that Bazire had acted as a go-between. Bazire served as principle private secretary to Prime Minister Balladur, and became his presidential campaign manager in 1995. Following Balladur's defeat to fellow Right rival Jacques Chirac, Bazire followed a business career.
"One day, Monsieur Achcar called me and asked for a meeting ‘for personal matters' during one of his visits to Paris," Takieddine told Mediapart. "He came to see me and told me who he was, and how he knew of my existence from Monsieur Bazire. He tells me that he has a house in Paris and that he was troubled tax-wise. At the time, Monsieur Bazire was nobody anymore, and I found it normal that he could not intervene. I said to Monsieur Achcar, ‘if you give me your file, I'll pass it on to someone'. And I passed it to the offices of Lefebvre."
Takieddine was referring to the Paris-based lawyers' practice, Francis Lefebvre, who represent him and who were also hired by Achcar.
The French tax authorities had demanded that Achcar pay back 6.2 million euros owed for irregularities they found concerning his tax returns for 1998, 1999 and 2000. Following budget minister Jean-François Copé's personal intervention in the case, the sum demanded by the tax authorities was reduced to 2.2 million euros.
This was set out as a series of what Copé called "solutions" in a letter he personally signed and sent to one of Achcar's two lawyers at the Lefebvre legal practice, Henri Bardet, dated June 13th 2005 (see below). In his letter, Copé informed the lawyer that the tax authorities would "soon detail" the "exact financial consequences of these solutions".
The text (in French) of Jean-François Copé's June 2005 letter to lawyer Henri Bardet:
A friendship dating back to 2002
Subsequently, in a letter sent to Achcar dated October 24th 2005, the divisionary head (whose name is deliberately withheld here) of the French national tax inspection office, the Direction nationale des vérifications de situations fiscales, the DNVSF, detailed the rectifications her services had made to reduce by almost two thirds the 6.2 million euros originally demanded.
In the case file of the current DNIF investigation, officers recorded, in a report dated December 12th 2011, that: "Concerning the revenue on transferable property for the years 1998, 1999 and 2000, we note that, in line with the Minister of the Budget's letter, only 10% of revenues [derived] from the company Sopra were to be considered [taxable]. We also note that concerning the declared revenues from the company Hilda Finance, 0% was to be considered taxable."
Achcar's Hilda Finance is domiciled in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven.
Gérard Achcar did not answer Mediapart's request for an interview. However, in an interview with Mediapart in September 2011, he denied any relationship with Takieddine. "I don't know Monsieur Takieddine," he said. "I don't know how he had access to my file. He did not intervene. My case followed the normal procedure. I had two lawyers at the Lefebvre practice. On the advice of [one of them] Foissac, we wrote to the minister. And Monsieur Copé replied that there were, indeed, some anomalies in my case."
Following Mediapart's series of investigations into the activities of Ziad Takieddine (see links to these at the end of this article, page three) Jean-François Copé has insisted that his relationship with the arms dealer remained strictly personal.
The two men had become friends in 2002, when Jacques Chirac was elected to a second term of office. Chirac's new government included the appointment of Nicolas Sarkozy (1) as interior minister and Copé as government spokesman. Ziad Takieddine very soon after became involved in negotiating new weapons contracts with Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries on behalf of Sarkozy's staff.
1: Following Edouard Balladur's 1995 election defeat, Nicolas Sarkozy returned to government seven years later when he was appointed as interior minister, under then-President Jacques Chirac, from May 7th 2002 until March 30th 2004. He became finance minister from March 31st 2004 until November 29th 2004, again under President Chirac. He was re-appointed interior minister, still under the presidency of Jacques Chirac, from June 2nd 2005, until March 26th 2007. Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president of France in 2007 and took up office on May 16th 2007.
'I offered him a Rolex, he liked watches'
Takieddine's generosity towards the Copé family, as detailed further above, continued after Copé became budget minister in November 2004. In July 2011, Mediapart revealed how Takieddine paid no taxes in France, where he is fiscally domiciled and where, according to his own accounts, he has a wealth totaling more than 40 million euros. His total wealth, in France and abroad, is estimated at about 100 million euros.
In an interview with French weekly JDD last November, Copé again insisted that his relationship with Takieddine was purely personal. "I obviously didn't know that Takieddine didn't pay taxes," he told the paper. During the interview, he admitted that Takieddine had paid for holiday trips to London and Venice, but said that the excursion to London included about 30 people invited to celebrate the birthday of Takieddine's now-divorced wife Nicola. "Concerning the three days with him in Venice, I wanted to pay but he insisted, and as he had reserved the trip he had already paid when I wanted to," Copé said.
In the same interview with the JDD, Copé was asked about the discovery made by judges Van Ruymbeke and Le Loire that his sister had opened an account in Switzerland, with the Crédit Suisse de Genève, in July 2005. "There has never been a question of money between Ziad Takieddine and me, and I am not aware of an eventual Swiss account belonging to my sister," he said. "I've learned of this from you." He later sent the paper the following clarification: "An account was indeed opened in 2005, which I did not know about until now, with the aim of placing some precautionary savings, to the order of some 15,000 euros. But it was closed two years later and does not concern me in any way."
Contacted by Mediapart, Takieddine also insisted his relationship with Copé was strictly personal. "I invited him with his family one week here, one week there, and once to Beirut," Takieddine said. "One day in Saint-Tropez, when he was staying with us at Cap d'Antibes, I offered him a Rolex for his birthday. I knew he liked watches."
For more on the background to the issues raised in this interview and Mediapart's exclusive investigations into the political scandal surrounding the activities of arms dealer Ziad Takieddine, click on the links below:
English version: Graham Tearse