Paris Court Convicts 6 in $50 Million Fake-Identity Scheme

PARIS — Six men who netted over $50 million in a brazen and elaborate scheme by impersonating a French defense minister and asking wealthy individuals and institutions to pay for fake, off-the-book government operations were convicted on Wednesday of fraud by a criminal court in Paris.

Two of the men, Gilbert Chikli, 54, and Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35, whom investigators called the masterminds of the plot, were sentenced to 11 years and seven years in prison and fined 2 million euros and 1 million euros ($2.3 million and $1.1 million).

Mr. Chikli reacted angrily after the verdict on Wednesday, calling the trial a “scandal” and accusing prosecutors of having brought the case at the behest of Mr. Le Drian.

“You should be ashamed, prosecutor of the rich,” he shouted in the courtroom.

Four other men, ages 27 to 49, who were suspected of varying levels of involvement in the scheme, received sentences of 15 months to five years in prison — some of the time suspended — as well as fines of between €40,000 and €100,000. The court found a fifth man not guilty.

Prosecutors said at the trial in February that the group impersonated Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s defense minister from 2012 to 2017, mainly in phone calls. In some cases, the group made video calls using a silicone mask and a fake setup of Mr. Le Drian’s office.

The fake Mr. Le Drian, under the pretext of national security, pressed the targets for millions of euros, often saying that France was negotiating a delicate and time-sensitive release of hostages in Syria and could not publicly use taxpayer money to pay the ransom to terrorists.

The impostors urged secrecy and targeted a wide array of people and institutions between 2015 and 2016, including embassies from France and other countries; clergymen; aid groups and charities; foreign governments; the chief executives of large companies; the archbishops of Lyon and Paris; and Nicolas Hulot, a French environmentalist.

The targets were promised that the funds would be paid back — but they were urged to quickly and discreetly wire the money to foreign accounts.

Many of the over 150 targets saw through the ruse and contacted the Defense Ministry, which alerted investigators in July 2015 that something was wrong.

But others sent the money. Three people were hooked, according to court testimony: Karim Aga Khan IV, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, who wired more than $20 million in March 2016; Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of the prestigious Château Margaux wine estate, who sent over $6 million that same month; and Inan Kirac, a wealthy Turkish businessman, who sent $47 million in November and December 2016.

The scammers also impersonated Mr. Le Drian’s aides, following up the phone calls with official-sounding email addresses and documents decorated with official-looking letterheads. They sometimes scheduled fake appointments with Mr. Le Drian at the French Parliament, or sent fake documents from France’s central bank, purporting to show that the money was being reimbursed.

Mr. Le Drian is now President Emmanuel Macron’s foreign minister.

Delphine Meillet, a lawyer for Mr. Le Drian, called the sentences “satisfying.”

“It’s a signal for society that it is extremely serious to pose as a minister, even more so in a context as delicate as the fight against terrorism,” Ms. Meillet said on Wednesday.

David-Olivier Kaminski, a lawyer for Mr. Lasarevitsch, accused of being the other mastermind, said on Wednesday that the sentences were “dizzyingly high” for a fraud case.

“The court wants to send a signal that is completely disproportionate in financial matters,” Mr. Kaminski said.

Some of the money transfers were blocked after the victims realized they had been cheated. But $50 million bounced from shell account to shell account and has not been recovered. Investigators are still working to trace the money, and the defendants found guilty on Wednesday could face additional money-laundering charges.

The court in Paris also awarded millions of euros in damages to some of the victims — the biggest amount, €44 million, went to Mr. Kirac, the Turkish businessman. But it was unclear if investigators would be able to recover the money.

Mr. Chikli is a swaggering Franco-Israeli whose life was the subject of a movie. He was previously sentenced in 2015 to seven years in prison and fined €1 million for impersonating company chief executives and persuading unsuspecting employees of companies to send money for bogus, top-secret operations.

Mr. Chikli had fled to Israel from France before his trial on those charges, and he lived for some time in Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv. But in 2017, he was arrested along with Mr. Lasarevitsch in Ukraine and extradited to France.

As evidence of Mr. Chikli’s involvement, prosecutors pointed to the similarities between the scheme to impersonate company executives and the one to impersonate Mr. Le Drian.

Mr. Chikli repeatedly denied any involvement, arguing that the scam had been the work of copycats who emulated his previous schemes.

But prosecutors also pointed to Google searches for terms like “silicon mask” that were found on Mr. Chikli’s phone, and they presented recordings of the phone calls that were made by some of group’s more skeptical targets. Investigators also said that an analysis of the impersonator’s voice showed a match to Mr. Chikli’s.

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