The discovery in 2012 of a $ 250,000 suitcase at the airport of Marseille and belonging to the tax director of the Bourbon group aroused suspicion about a major system of corruption of African tax officials. The oil services company and eight of its leaders will be assessed from Monday, March 18.
Returning from a business trip to Nigeria on October 19, 2012, Marc Cherqui, tax administrator of the Bourbon group specializing in maritime services for the oil industry and listed on the stock exchange, landed at Marseille-Marignane airport, the company based in Marseille. But he cannot retrieve his luggage and he hurries to report the loss. And for good reason, the bag that was found and entrusted to customs contains, in bundles of $ 100, about $ 250,000.
An investigation is being started. It led to the referral to the Correctional Court of Marseille for active bribery of foreign government officials, Bourbon as a legal person, his then-general Christian Lefevre and his general directors Gaël Bodenes, now director-general and Laurent Renard. Five other former executives will appear alongside them for complicity in corruption in this lawsuit scheduled for March 27.
According to the prosecutor, the investigation revealed "a presumed will" of the group for the 1 billion euro turnover and "who does not pay tax in France, to avoid paying the legally due taxes", in Nigeria, Equatorial. Guinea and Cameroon, by billing recovery agents in the event of a recovery, for an estimated total amount of approximately $ 3.2 million.
After initially ignoring the presence of the money in his suitcase and then talking about financial problems related to his divorce, the tax adviser dismissed since then explained to the investigators that he had moved to Lagos to find an agreement. "Transactional" after a tax audit against his company.
"Pay as little tax as possible"
According to Marc Cherqui, who claims to have warned his management, the Nigerian tax authorities demanded $ 227 million from Bourbon for tax evasion and agreed to reduce this amount to $ 4 million after paying $ 2.7 million in bribes . – for officials. The $ 250,000 found in the suitcase represented "the rest of the corruption operation".
During his auditions, the tax administrator says he discovered at the time of his hiring an "inexpressible disorder and fraud in all areas". "It was not an incompetence" but "an organized system to pay the least tax possible in France and abroad," he says. "Risk" tax on which he says he has informed his superiors by post.
A former tax director of the group also describes a process of reducing the amount of "lei" after discussion with local actors, in exchange for "African" gifts.
The Bourbon lawyer refutes
"There is no money from Bourbon or any of its subsidiaries. The investigation has never identified the agents who would have received this money and where it would come from," said Bourbon & # 39; s lawyer Ludovic Malgrain. "There have certainly been shortcomings in the control of this Mr. Cherqui," the lawyer admits, but it has "acted on his own behalf," says Me Ludovic Malgrain.
For the company with 8,400 employees, which was hit hard four years ago by the fall in oil prices, "the worst falls" and could undermine relations with international partners, the lawyer acknowledges.
The group with 29 subsidiaries operating in 45 countries announced a new strategic plan in February, after having already implemented a reduction in its costs and a reorganization of its debt.