Fifteen years after the events, fourteen people must appear for three weeks on suspicion of a financial arrangement aimed at deceiving the tax authorities on colossal amounts. Among them, former leaders of Wendel, including the former boss of French bosses, Ernest-Antoine Seillière. The trial begins on Monday, January 17. At his side, Jean-Bernard Lafonta, 60, then at the head of the executive board, as well as eleven executives – former and current – and a former tax lawyer will have to explain themselves at the helm on an ultra-sophisticated profit-sharing program called Solfur . Ernest-Antoine Seillière was at the head of Medef, the French employers’ organization, from 1998 to 2005, then president of the European employers’ association Business Europe from 2005 to 2009.
At the end of May 2007, the clever Solfur scheme enabled fourteen officials (one of them has since died) to recover 315 million euros in shares, or 4.6% of Wendel’s capital, and this, according to the prosecution, “totally tax-free”. For the National Financial Prosecutor’s Office (PNF), the gain then generated was artificially placed, via the interposition of companies, under a “suspended taxation” regime, with the aim of deferring or even, ultimately, avoiding payment. tax on these considerable capital gains. An interpretation disputed by the defendants, who refuted during the investigations any intention to defraud, ensuring that the assembly respected the law and the administrative jurisprudence of the time. Their lawyers, who did not wish to speak before the trial, will plead for release.
A strong recovery in 2010
Concomitant with a global reorganization, the Solfur operation had caused a stir within Wendel, a former steel giant that had become an investment company, still controlled by a family holding company bringing together a thousand descendants of Jean-Martin Wendel, founder of the group in Lorraine. in 1704. In the months that followed, the difficulties of the Saint-Gobain group, in which Wendel had invested, but especially the financial crisis of 2008, had led to a tumble in the action. Believing themselves wronged, some executives had taken legal action, denouncing a disastrous assembly in the end. In December 2010, just a few days before the tax prescription, all had been notified of a heavy adjustment: 240 million in total, including penalties.
And in 2012, the Ministry of Finance had transmitted to justice a volley of criminal complaints for tax evasion, leading to the opening of a judicial investigation. The investigations relied in particular on the exchanges of emails on the development of the arrangement at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, between the managers of Wendel, their teams of lawyers and the bank JPMorgan Chase, in which the “tax risk” is minutely studied. The American bank, initially referred to justice in 2016 for complicity in tax evasion alongside the defendants, will however be absent from the court. In September, she agreed to pay a 25 million euro fine via a court settlement to close the charges.
“Had no other choice”
Presented as a “Mozart of finance” on his arrival as general manager of the group in 2001 at the age of 40, Jean-Bernard Lafonta, who worked for the banks Lazard and BNP, resigned in 2009 in the wake of this affair. Sentenced for insider trading and dissemination of misleading information then released on appeal, he must be tried from Monday for tax evasion but also for complicity: main beneficiary (120 million euros, ahead of Ernest-Antoine Seillière, 79 million ), he is suspected of having instigated the executives to join Solfur.
During the investigations, several of them claimed to have “had no other choice” than to accept the “package”, “turnkey”, after having been assured of the “perfect legality and conformity tax”. While some have long contested the tax adjustment, almost all executives have finally accepted a transaction with the tax authorities. A former tax lawyer then member of the renowned firm Debevoise & Plimpton, who helped shape the outlines of the arrangement, is also on trial for complicity in tax evasion. All incur a fine of 37,500 euros and five years’ imprisonment.
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