Header Ads

Breaking News

Defense Minister Was on the Line, Asking for Millions to Aid France. Or Was He?


PARIS — On the phone, the man who said he was Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defense minister, sounded insistent.

There was a pressing matter of national security, he would say, and the government needed millions of euros for a top-secret, off-the-books operation to deal with it. The money would be paid back — but France needed it fast, and no one else could know.

Emails and documents with official-looking addresses and letterheads would soon follow, as would details for wiring money to bank accounts in countries like Poland or China. In some cases, the caller would even follow-up with a brief, fuzzy video call, in which a man looking like Mr. Le Drian sat in what appeared to be an official ministry office, with a comically ancient phone on his deck and France’s flag in the background.

To many of the celebrities, foreign officials and wealthy businesspeople on the other end of the line, the story sounded like an elaborate scam. When inquiries were made with the Defense Ministry — led by the real Mr. Le Drian at the time of the calls, in 2015 and 2016, when François Hollande was president — it was confirmed that the calls were from fraudulent impersonators.

But the brazen scheme, outlined on Tuesday at the first day of a trial in Paris, still succeeded in fooling a few rich individuals, cheating them out of over 50 million euros, or about $55 million.

After several years of investigations and the identification of over 150 targets, seven men accused of organizing the scam went on trial for fraud on Tuesday at a criminal court in Paris, where the presiding judge called the scheme “atypical” and “original” yet quite “sophisticated.”

Impersonating Mr. Le Drian and his aides in emails, faxes and phone calls — in the video calls, a silicon mask of his face was worn — the scammers targeted a remarkable array of people and institutions: French embassies abroad and foreign embassies in France; aid groups and charities; foreign governments; the chief executives of large companies like Total or Pernod Ricard; the archbishops of Lyon and Paris; and Nicolas Hulot, a well-known French environmentalist.

They even tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the Tunisian defense ministry to hand over money for the delivery of four Tiger attack helicopters. There had been no such order.

Mr. Le Drian, who is now the foreign minister in the government of President Emmanuel Macron, Mr. Hollande’s successor, was not at the trial on Tuesday. Last year, he told reporters in New York that the impersonators were “pretty good” and that “they did a good imitation of my voice.”

But “you can’t pretend to be me,” he added. “If you try to pose as me, you go to prison.”

The impersonators often urged targets to quickly and discreetly wire the money to foreign accounts because France was negotiating the release of hostages in Syria and could not publicly use taxpayer money to pay a terrorist ransom.

To reassure the targets, the scammers sometimes went as far as to schedule fake appointments with Mr. Le Drian at the French Parliament or to send fake documents from France’s central bank, purporting to show that the money was being reimbursed.

Delphine Meillet, a lawyer representing Mr. Le Drian, said on Tuesday in an interview with France Inter radio that the scammers were preying upon their targets at a time when fears about terrorism were particularly acute, after a string of deadly attacks in France and the rise of terrorist groups profiting from the war in Syria.

“Imagine: Someone calls you from the defense ministry and says: ‘Would you accept to do France a favor?’” she said, arguing that the scammers had preyed upon the gullibility but also the patriotism of their targets. Those fooled were not promised any monetary profit from the scam.

The scam “could have interfered in political and diplomatic issues and it could have put France in very delicate situations,” she added. “At the time, there really were hostages that needed to be freed.”

Few took the bait. In most cases, suspicious targets balked after checking in with the Defense Ministry, which first alerted investigators in July 2015 that something was afoot.

But three targets were hooked in: Karim Aga Khan IV, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, who wired over $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.

Some of those transfers were blocked after the victims realized they had been cheated, so not all of the $73 million reached the scammers. But some of the money did get into their hands, and rapidly bounced from shell account to shell account. It has not been recovered.

The seven men who went on trial on Tuesday are suspected of varying levels of involvement in the fraud. An investigation is continuing, and the suspects in the case could face future charges of money laundering.

But investigators believe that two of the men — Gilbert Chikli, 54, and Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35 — were the masterminds. Both were arrested in Ukraine in 2017 on charges related to a separate case and extradited to France.

Mr. Chikli, a swaggering Franco-Israeli con man whose life was the subject of a movie — the actress Julie Gayet, Mr. Hollande’s partner, played Mr. Chikli’s wife — was sentenced in 2015 to seven years in prison and one million euros in fines for a similar scam. In that case he impersonated company chief executives and convinced unsuspecting employees to send money for bogus, top-secret operations.

At the trial on Tuesday, Mr. Chikli denied any involvement in the impersonation of Mr. Le Drian, arguing that it was the work of criminal copy cats who had gleaned techniques from some of his prior schemes online, and that he was unfairly being prosecuted “for past mistakes.”

“This kind of fraud — there has always been some, there is some now, and there always will be some,” Mr. Chikli defiantly told the court’s presiding judge.

On Wednesday the court is expected to go over recordings of the phone calls that were made by some of the more skeptical targets. Investigators say analysis of the impersonator’s voice shows a match with Mr. Chikli’s.

They have also pointed to data recovered from Mr. Chikli’s phone after he was arrested. Mr. Chikli, who had fled France for Israel before his trial on the accusations of impersonating chief executives, was living in Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, at the time of his arrest.

Investigators say they found Google searches for terms like “silicon mask” on his phone, as well as a picture of a mask of the face of Prince Albert II of Monaco — suggesting, they argue, that the impersonators were looking for a new persona.

Source link

No comments