A group of wealthy Parisians, including a senior member of the Green Party, claim they “only” wanted to transfer funds from hidden Swiss accounts without involving the taxman after an investigation linked them to a huge drug smuggling operation.
A group of well-heeled Parisians who thought they were withdrawing large amounts of cash from hidden Swiss accounts under the radar of the tax authorities were in fact receiving bags full of banknotes allegedly coming from street drug-dealing in the city’s suburbs.
They include architect Florence Lamblin, the Green Party deputy mayor of the capital’s 13th arrondissement, as well as three business owners, a dentist, an art dealer and a lawyer.
Up to 20 people were arrested in France and Switzerland last week in what police say is one of the biggest money-laundering operations they have ever handled.
'No change' in French cannabis laws
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Monday repeated his government’s opposition to liberalising cannabis laws in France, a day after Education Secretary Vincent Peillon called for a renewed debate on the country’s “backward” attitude to soft drugs.
Peillon said on Monday that his statement over the weekend was “just his personal point of view” and that he “wholeheartedly agreed with the government stance”, as opposition conservatives blasted his statement as “irresponsible”.
Former Prime Minister François Fillon said Peillon had demonstrated the “amateurism” of the government and called the education minister a “sorcerer’s apprentice”.
Each of the wealthy Parisians has admitted “only” wanting to make withdrawals from their Swiss accounts without having to declare the funds to the authorities.
But they deny any knowledge of being part of the drugs and money-laundering scheme, uncovered by police in an operation that began in February when they intercepted a so-called “go-fast” car transporting cannabis from Morocco to Paris.
After hundreds of hours of surveillance and phone taps, police linked the operation to three Swiss-Moroccan brothers, allegedly running a scheme to turn around the proceeds of drug sales in Paris to buy “clean” assets in Morocco, Dubai and Spain.
Geneva-based fund manager Meyer El-Maleh, 48, and his younger brother Nessim, 28, who was working with British-owned HSBC, handled the transactions, arranging for wealthy individuals in Paris with hidden Swiss bank accounts to “withdraw” their assets and have the cash handed to them directly in the French capital.
The oldest of the three brothers Mardoché, 52, made the deliveries in hotel rooms, according to police, who claim that he was directly involved in the drug-dealing operation.
Simultaneously, the money was moved from one Swiss account to another, then funnelled into the trio's "legitimate" investment and property projects.
After raids in Paris and Geneva on Wednesday, police seized a million euros in notes, six gold bars, two high-value art works, money-counting machines as well as two automatic handguns and bullet-proof jackets.
According to French daily Libération on Monday, the brothers laundered some 40 million euros from the sale of Moroccan cannabis in five months. The authorities estimate that the illicit trade in cannabis in France is worth a billion euros a year.
Red-faced Green party
The arrests are particularly embarrassing for the Green Party, in coalition with France’s Socialist government, which has been highly critical of wealthy French individuals trying to evade the country’s tax system by leaving the country or moving undeclared cash through offshore accounts.
Mother-of-three Lamblin, in whose comfortable Paris home (pictured) police found 400,000 euros in banknotes, has not resigned her seat on the 13th arrondissement council and said she would remain a member of the council, although without portfolio, until "she could clear her name".
According to divorcée Lamblin, the cash came from a Swiss account set up by her grandfather in 1920 which contained 350,000 euros.
“Someone that she trusted had put her in touch with a contact who arranged to have the funds repatriated to France,” her lawyer told reporters over the weekend.
“At most, the only thing she had done wrong is to have failed to declare the money to the tax authorities.”
Paris's Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë on Monday called for Lamblin, who protests her innocence, to resign completely, threatening a slanging match that could undermine his party's shaky coalition with the Greens.
Date created : 2012-10-15