French ex-minister in court over tax fraud, money laundering

FILE - In this Feb.8, 2016 file photo, former French budget minister Jerome Cahuzac arrives for his trial in Paris. Cahuzac appears in a Paris court Monday Sept. 5, 2016 on charges of tax fraud and money laundering that forced him to resign in 2013 in one of the biggest political scandals under President Francois Hollande. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

PARIS — A former French budget minister is going on trial for hiding his wealth in tax havens around the world while, at the same time, being the country's top official in charge of fighting tax evasion.

Jerome Cahuzac is to appear in a Paris court Monday on charges of tax fraud and money laundering that saw him resign in 2013 in one of the biggest political scandals under President Francois Hollande.

The 64-year-old former cosmetic surgeon is accused of concealing at least 687,000 euros ($766,000) in income from tax authorities in 2009-2012. He's also accused of laundering money in 2003-2013 through foreign bank accounts in Switzerland and Singapore and dummy companies in Panama and the Seychelles.

Cahuzac, who acknowledged evading taxes for two decades, faces up to seven years in prison and a 1 million-euro ($1.1 million) fine if convicted.

The fraud helped him finance a lavish lifestyle, such as expensive vacations, court documents show. Investigators discovered that Cahuzac paid bills to one luxury hotel for a total of 127,000 euros ($142,000) for several stays with his ex-wife and their three children.

With the French presidential election eight months away, the trial is sure to revive voters' memories of the scandal that tarnished Hollande's mandate just a few months after the socialist president was elected in 2012. Hollande is widely expected to seek a second term next spring.

On trial Monday alongside Cahuzac are his former wife; a banker; a legal adviser; and bank Reyl, a respectable but little-known Swiss establishment, all accused of money laundering. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

His ex-wife, Patricia Menard, a 60-year-old dermatologist, is accused of hiding 2.5 million euros ($2.8 million) from French tax authorities until 2013 and laundering money in the British tax haven of the Isle of Man and in Switzerland, allowing her to buy two London apartments estimated at around 3 million euros overall.

The Cahuzac couple has already paid 2.3 million euros ($2.6 million) in back taxes to French authorities.

The scandal was magnified by the fact that it involved France's top tax-enforcement official and that as a minister Cahuzac publicly lied to Parliament and to the French people. French law does not sanction perjury.

When press reports first revealed the scandal in December 2012, Cahuzac was sponsoring a bill to reinforce the fight against tax evasion and fraud.

For months, Cahuzac strongly denied any wrongdoing, even to Hollande and government colleagues. He eventually admitted to the fraud in April 2013, saying he had been "trapped in a lying spiral." The same month, he was fired from the Socialist Party.

The Cahuzac scandal damaged Hollande's approval rating, which took a 13-point dive in the first quarter of 2013. It also had the effect of increasing public mistrust of politicians and fueled demands for more transparency. The issues are often mentioned by the National Front far-right party.

On Monday, the Paris prosecutor's office said it has requested a criminal trial for former President Nicolas Sarkozy over suspected illegal overspending on his failed 2012 re-election campaign. It's now up to the judges to decide whether Sarkozy must stand trial.

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