A former French budget minister is on trial for tax fraud. 63 years old Jerome Cahuzac faces up to seven years in prison and a €2million fine if he is convicted. His ex-wife, a Swiss banker and a Dubai-based lawyer are co-defendants in this case.
The 12 years old message
It is the year 2000. Jerome Cahuzac, a cardiologist who became a successful plastic surgeon specialising in hair transplants, is a member of the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, representing Lot-et-Garonne, a department in the southwest of France. Although they are political rivals, the socialist Jerome Cahuzac and the right-wing politician Michel Gonelle telephoned each other occasionally. Accidentally selecting his political opponent’s number, Cahuzac leaves a message on Gonelle’s answering machine: “What bothers me is that I’ve still got this account open at UBS. UBS is not necessarily the most hidden of banks.”
In 2010, Jerome Cahuzac became president of the National Assembly finance commission. On 16th of May 2012, President François Hollande who had promised a crackdown on wealthy tax avoiders during his election campaign, appointed Cahuzac as budget minister. Cahuzac’s mission was to be the toughest budget-watcher, to lead French government’s fight against tax fraudsters and tax havens, to make drastic government spending cuts.
But back in 2000, Cahuzac left a message to the wrong person, and that person, Michel Gonelle, although now retired from politics, is a keeper. Aware of the tape’s value, Gonelle kept it for 12 years and Cahuzac’s appointment as tax tsar gave him the perfect opportunity to reveal it. So, in his turn, in December 2012, Gonelle left the tape on an investigative website answering machine.
“Not now, not ever”
On 4th of December 2012, Mediapart website revealed that French budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac held for several years a secret bank account in Switzerland. According to Mediapart, Cahuzac closed the UBS account just days before becoming president of the National Assembly finance commission. Citing “sources informed of the operation”, Mediapart alleged that Cahuzac “discreetly” paid a trip to Geneva to shift the undisclosed sums to “another tax haven in Asia“. https://www.mediapart.fr/
Threatening legal action, Cahuzac immediately dismissed the claims as “defamatory”. “I have never had a bank account in Switzerland or elsewhere abroad. Never”, said the minister in an official statement.
On 5th of December, Mediapart released the recording deposited on its answering machine by Gonelle. https://www.mediapart.fr/
On the same day, Jerome Cahuzac told the National Assembly: “I do not have, have never had, an account abroad. Not now, not ever.”
Cahuzac spent the following months repeatedly swearing that he had no hidden account, dismissing the reports as “crazy”, saying that the voice in the recording was not his (“It cannot be me because I have never had an account abroad.”), taking libel action against Mediapart, claiming again and again his innocence (“It is not for me to say that I am innocent, but, in conscience, I always have been.”)
A determined and sophisticated tax fraud
On 8th of January 2013, French prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry to ascertain whether the recorded voice is Cahuzac’s. Cahuzac welcomed the preliminary investigation, saying it would allow him to prove his “complete innocence of the absurd allegations that he has been subjected to“.
On 19th of March 2013, the investigation concluded that voice on tape is “probably” Cahuzac. The public prosecutor said in a statement that police laboratory tests showed the voice was “probably” that of Jerome Cahuzac and that three witnesses had recognised his voice. “In other words, the result of our analysis reinforces the hypothesis that Jerome Cahuzac is the unidentified speaker“. The Prosecutor Office launched a formal fiscal fraud investigation into the affair. Cahuzac resigned his post, announcing that the resignation “changes nothing, neither about my innocence, nor about the libellous nature of the accusations against me.”
After conducting deeper investigations, in France, Switzerland and Singapore, the prosecutors described the tax fraud as “determined” and “sophisticated” as well as a “family affair” including Cazuhac’s mother and his now ex-wife Patricia Menard. Prosecution alleged that a friend of Jerome Cahuzac first opened an account with UBS in Switzerland in 1992, then Cahuzac himself opened one in his own name in 1993. In 1998, all the funds were allegedly transferred to a Swiss banker (François Reyl), totalling some 600,000 euros by 2009. Cahuzac stands accused of channelling the funds to Singapore, taking a labyrinthine route through a shell company registered in the Seychelles set up by a Dubai-based lawyer (Philippe Houman).
The shocking confession
On 2nd of April 2013, two weeks after the formal investigation started, Cahuzac asked to see the investigating judges and then issued a sudden confession via his blog (www.jerome-cahuzac.com).
Cahuzac admitted having had an offshore account for more than 20 years. He said the account contained about 600,000 euros and had ordered the funds transferred to his French account. Cahuzac begged forgiveness from President Hollande, his former government colleagues, fellow lawmakers, French voters, his family and his friends. “I was caught in a spiral of lies and lost my way. I am devastated by guilt“, he said. “It was an unspeakable mistake to think that I could avoid confronting a past that I wanted to consider behind me. I will now face this reality with all transparency.“