- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

PARIS, March 17 (UPI) — The largest financial trial in recent French history opened Monday in a Paris courtroom, implicating the shadowy and influential oil company Elf-Aquitaine, formerly owned by the French government.

Charges range from questionable operations in Germany, Spain and Africa, to alleged illegal payoffs to political leaders and influential businessmen, to illicit

Swiss bank accounts and sumptuous chateaux and apartments bought by former Elf executives with money skimmed from the company when it was .

Elf subsequently privatized and merged and is now known as TotalFinaElf.

Three top French investigating judges over an 8-year period investigated Elf's complicated dealings and came up with the charges.

No fewer than 37 defendants are to appear before the Paris correctional tribunal over the next four months. They include Elf's three top, former executives, Alfred

Sirven, Loik Le Floch Prigent, and Andre Tarallo, dubbed the company's "Mr. Africa."

Sirven and Le Floch Prigent earlier received prison sentences and stiff fines in a separate trial involving illegal payoffs. An appeals court later overturned a prison sentence facing former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas — another defendant in the first Elf trial.

Among questionable Elf deals to be addressed at the second trial is a 1992 purchase of an eastern German refinery. According to news reports and court documents, a large chunk of the money allegedly ended up in the coffers of the Christian Democratic party of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Elf also allegedly paid off top officials in Gabon and elsewhere in Africa, to maintain French oil and other strategic interests on the continent.

And top Elf executives, most notably Sirven, Le Floch Prigent and Tarallo, allegedly dipped into the company coffers to bankroll luxurious lifestyles. For Sirven, that reportedly included a chateau and more than $2.4 million in renovation work on the building. Le Floch Prigent is accused of maintaining a secret bank account in Switzerland, and buying a swanky Paris apartment with company funds.

Tarallo is accused of buying a villa in Corsica with Elf money, among other

misdeeds.

Other defendants, including former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, are accused of lesser misdeeds.

At least three defendants — former French spy Pierre Lethier, and businessmen Nadhmi Auchi and Nasir Abid — will be absent at the trial. The three reportedly live freely in Switzerland, Britain and Luxembourg, respectively, despite international warrants for their arrests.




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