Flamboyant French businessman Bernard Tapie was on Tuesday acquitted on charges of defrauding the state of more than 400 million euros with a massive 2008 arbitration award that has also ensnared IMF chief Christine Lagarde.
In its ruling, the Paris criminal court found “nothing in the case that confirmed” the allegation that the arbitration payout was tainted by “fraud”.
The 76-year-old former Socialist minister, who rose from humble beginnings to build up a sporting and media empire, was not in court on health grounds following a resurgence of cancer.
Tapie was put on trial in March in the latest chapter of a two-decade legal saga that has embroiled a slew of senior officials, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Lagarde.
“Today the court has delivered a verdict with rare independence that is exceptionally clear and it is … of immense satisfaction for us and a huge relief,” a lawyer for Tapie, Herve Temime, told reporters.
The case centres on a payment of 404 million euros ($454 million) that was awarded to him in 2008 by a government arbitration panel.
The panel found he had been the victim of fraud when he sold his stake in the Adidas in 1993 to state-run French bank Credit Lyonnais, which was found to have undervalued the sportswear brand.
The amount sent shockwaves through France, but was soon tainted by allegations that the ruling panel had been biased in Tapie’s favour amid questions as to why the dispute was settled in arbitration, rather than in court.
Lagarde, who was economy minister at the time, decided not to appeal the ruling — a decision for which she was later found guilty of negligence by a court that rules on cases of ministerial misconduct.
Lagarde’s handling of the case sparked suspicion that her former boss Sarkozy, whom Tapie had backed for president in 2007, was favourably disposed towards the businessman — allegations Sarkozy has vehemently denied.
In December 2015, a court ordered Tapie to pay back the money after finding the settlement to be fraudulent, with the case going to trial in March this year.
In its ruling on Tuesday, the Paris court also acquitted four others of complicity for having referred the case to arbitration, one of whom was Stephane Richard, former chief-of-staff at the economy ministry under Lagarde and now head of French telecoms giant Orange.
Tapie made a fortune in the early part of his career by taking over failing companies, and flaunted his wealth by buying a vast Paris townhouse and a 72-metre (236-foot) yacht.
He also splashed out on a cycling team, and on the Olympique de Marseille football team which he guided to five successive league triumphs and the 1993 Champions League title.
But things began to unravel in the 1990s when he served six months behind bars in 1997 for match-fixing. His business empire later collapsed.
He was able to repay his debts after the arbitrators ruled he had been the victim of fraud when he sold Adidas in 1993, and soon bought another yacht, which he named “Reborn”.
But the cancellation of the payment in 2015 left him high and dry again.