Tycoon jailed for multimillion-euro scam of French state

PARIS – A French court convicted and jailed a tycoon Thursday over a 283 million-euro ($314 million) carbon tax fraud, dubbed “the scam of the century” by French media.

Arnaud Mimran was sentenced to eight years and a 1 million-euro fine for the 2008-2009 fraud, which resulted in a major tax shortfall for French authorities. During his trial he also caused upset in Israel by claiming that on another occasion he had donated 1 million euros to the election campaign of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mimran was taken away by the police inside the courtroom to be brought directly to prison, as ordered by the judge. Ten other defendants received sentences of between one and eight years from the Paris court, and six were also fined 1 million euros. All were convicted of aggravated fraud and money-laundering. One person was acquitted.

A dozen lawyers attended the verdict hearing. They left the courtroom looking sombre and unusually refusing to comment on the verdict to reporters.

The complex fraud involved an ultra-juicy financial sleight of hand, bringing into play phoney offshore companies with straw managers and sidekicks used as figureheads, and causing huge losses to the coffers of France.

To fight global warming, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol created a tool, the “carbon market.” In Europe, companies receive CO2 emission quotas every year, tantamount to a “right to pollute” to a certain limit. If they pollute less, they can sell the allowances they have left to other, more polluting companies.

But this market soon attracted organized crime. Criminals bought quotas in one country, free of tax, and sold them in another including value added tax. But they kept the nearly-20-per cent VAT amounts for themselves and failed to pay them to the state.

The dirty money from VAT was transferred to foreign accounts, and part of it was then invested again in new, similar fraudulent transactions in order to multiply gains. Shell companies were specifically created for this purpose and deliberately went bankrupt or ceased operations just before paying VAT due in France.

The scam exposed in the trial lasted only seven months. It started in November 2008 and ended in June 2009 when French authorities decided to exempt the transactions from VAT due to suspicions of widespread fraud.

Despite the short time period, the fraud produced “mammoth profits”, investigating judges said in court documents. Mimran, who is considered to have been the investor for the rest of the gang, provided the initial funds, allowing the subsequent snowball effect. After investing 8 to 9 million euros in the fraud, he eventually earned 21 million euros in profit, which amounts to an annual return of 477 per cent, he acknowledged to the investigators.

To achieve the 283 million euros in non-paid VAT, the conmen sold a huge number of CO2 emission quotas for a total price of 1.45 billion euros over the 7-month period, court documents show.

The French general accounting office in 2012 drew up an assessment for all of the carbon tax frauds and found the tax losses for the national public budget totalled 1.6 billion euros $1.8 billion). Europol estimated tax losses for the whole European Union at about 5 billion euros ($5.5 billion).

In the civil part of the ruling, those convicted were jointly sentenced to pay 283 million euros in damages to the state which was a plaintiff in the case. The sum is equivalent to the amount of the losses for the French tax authorities.

Half of the 12 defendants were tried in absentia and are believed to be in Israel.

During the trial in May, Mimran reportedly testified he donated “1 million euros” to one of Netanyahu’s election campaigns in 2001. If true, such a sum would violate Israel’s campaign finance laws.

Netanyahu’s office denied the figure, saying Mimran only made a lawful $40,000 donation to a fund used for Netanyahu’s public diplomacy tours abroad while he held no office. Later on, in June, Mimran told Israel’s channel 10 TV that, in his court statement, he meant 1 million French francs, or 153,000 euros at that time.

“I still have the bank statement, it is Arnaud Mimran, my personal account, to Benjamin Netanyahu, his personal account”, Mimran told channel 10 TV. “He can check on his account. This is not something he or I can hide,” he said.

The Israeli attorney-general has said he is probing Mimran’s claim.