Flamboyant French businessman Bernard Tapie was yesterday acquitted on charges of defrauding the state of more than 400 million euros ($450 million) with a massive 2008 arbitration award that has also ensnared IMF chief Christine Lagarde.
In its ruling, the Paris criminal court found “nothing in the case that confirmed” the allegation that the arbitration payout was tainted by fraud.
The decision draws a line under a two-decade legal saga that entangled a slew of senior officials, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Lagarde, who has just been named the next head of the European Central Bank.
Tapie, a 76-year-old former Socialist minister who rose from humble beginnings to build up a sporting and media empire, was put on trial in March for fraud and misuse of public funds.
“It just proves that you must always, always fight until the very end,” said Tapie.
If found guilty he could have faced a five-year jail term. Currently diagnosed with cancer of the stomach and oesophagus, he was not in court for health reasons.
His lawyer Herve Temime hailed the court for its “exceptionally clear” judgement which he said was “a huge relief”.
The case centred on a payment of 404 million euros ($453 million) that was awarded to him in 2008 by a government arbitration panel.
The panel judged he had been the victim of fraud when he sold his stake in the Adidas sports apparel company in 1993 to state-run French bank Credit Lyonnais, which was found to have undervalued the sportswear brand.
The scale of the damages paid to him sent shockwaves through France, but the ruling was soon tainted by allegations that the panel had been biased in Tapie’s favour amid questions as to why the dispute was settled in arbitration, rather than in court.
Lagarde, who was economy minister at the time, decided not to appeal the ruling -- a decision for which she was later found guilty of negligence by a court that rules on cases of ministerial misconduct.
Lagarde’s handling of the case sparked suspicion that her former boss Sarkozy, whom Tapie had backed for president in 2007, was favourably disposed towards the businessman -- allegations Sarkozy has vehemently denied.