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Business

An Oily Scandal

A seven-year probe into former French oil company Elf-Aquitaine has brought forth a wide-reaching maze of high-level corruption. One of the biggest judicial inquiries in French history also includes ties to Germany.

What role did the former East German oil refinery in Leuna play in the Elf-Aquitaine scandal?

Investigators in France have wrapped up their probe into the kickbacks scandal at formerly state-owned oil company Elf-Aquitaine. The inquiry lasting over seven years unraveled a web of corruption among top politicians and managers.

The main accusation is that Elf-Aquitaine gained economic advantages both in France and abroad through bribery payments. Between 1989 and 1993, it's estimated that the company misappropriated some 610 million euro ($530 million) in funds.

The French magistrates have passed their report on to prosecuting authorities in Paris, who are expected to take at least a year to sift through the 320 volumes of findings. They must decide on possible indictments of more than 40 people and whether to send the affair to trial.

Elf has since been privatized and is part of TotalFinaElf.

German ties

Part of the Elf-Aquitaine scandal involves so-called "commission payments" of 39 million euro ($34 million) made in connection with its purchase of the eastern German Leuna refinery complex in 1992.

Businessman and lobbyist Dieter Holzer leaves the Bundestag's parliamentary investigation committee for the conservative Christian Democrats' party funding scandal around former Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Berlin Thursday, June 21, 2001. Holzer, who refused to give evidence, is considered to be the key figure in the sale of former East German Minol oil company to the French Elf Aquitaine multinational oil corporation after the German reunification.

The whereabouts of these funds, mainly paid to German businessman Dieter Holzer (photo), has not been completely clarified. There is to date no definite evidence they were bribery payments.

Several Elf managers had insinuated that German politicians were also bribed during the Leuna deal. But a parliamentary investigation committee for the conservative CDU party funding scandal around former Chancellor Helmut Kohl found no evidence of this.

The French authorities now assume that the bribery theory was a deliberate bluff on the part of the Elf managers. They had actually wanted to use the funds themselves and transferred them to Holzer for simple laundering purposes, the investigators suppose.

Political leaders among the accused

The list of suspects reads like a "who-is-who" of France's political and economic leadership. At the top are former Elf-Aquitaine chairman Loik Le Floch-Prigent and his number two man Alfred Sirven. The latter was captured in the Philippines in 2001 after more than three years on the run.

Andre Tarallo, known as Elf-Aquitaine's "Mr Africa" during the rule of late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, has also been named. All are suspected of having misused company accounts and of siphoning Elf-Aquitaine funds into offshore bank accounts.

Although no political ties were proven in Germany, various French ministers reportedly had their hands in the money pot. Former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua is one name mentioned.

The former Foreign Minister Roland Dumas and his onetime mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour, have already been found guilty of corruption. The sensational trial last year focused on fictitious jobs and gifts handed out by Elf-Aquitaine in exchange for state contracts.

Le Floch-Prigent and Sirven were also convicted, but are due to go before an appeals court in March in a bid to have their sentences overturned.

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