(Bloomberg) -- Billionaire Vincent Bollore and two other men were charged by French investigators late Wednesday as part of a probe into the possible use of bribes in two African countries to obtain port contracts from public officials.
The case stems from a case focusing on suspicions of foul play when Bollore SA was awarded contracts to operate container terminals in Lome, Togo, and Conakry, Guinea, according to a statement from his company. A Bollore SA executive and an official at Havas, an advertising company linked to Bollore, were also charged, according to a person familiar with the matter. All three men were released last night.
Investigating judges suspect that managers of Bollore SA used Havas to facilitate the elections of presidents Alpha Conde in Guinea and Faure Gnassingbe in Togo nearly a decade ago by providing communications advice at a discount price, according to the person, who declined to be identified because the details of the probe are confidential. At the time of the events in 2010, Bollore was Havas’s controlling shareholder.
The 66-year-old Bollore “remains presumed innocent” as the investigation continues, the company said. In France, charges are announced prior to any decision on whether to refer the case to trial and can be dropped later. The move allows his defense team to have access to the case files underpinning the allegations, which they haven’t seen so far, and “have the opportunity to answer these unfounded accusations,” according to the statement.
The charges are a sign that French authorities are stepping up their prosecution of international corruption cases. Investigators have other big-ticket cases in the pipeline. They are probing Societe Generale SA over allegations of bribery related to the bank’s work with the Libyan Investment Authority, while Airbus SE reportedly risks a fine in excess of $1 billion in a case also run by U.K. watchdogs.
For years, French regulators were notoriously slow and ineffective in their pursuit of international corruption, earning the country a rebuke from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The case against Bollore, one of France’s richest men with a net worth of $6.6 billion, began following the complaint of a former business partner, the company said in a statement Tuesday.
While other managers -- Bollore executive Gilles Alix and Havas partner Jean-Philippe Dorent -- were also held for questioning, the latest company statement doesn’t mention the outcome of their meetings. They too were charged in the case, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Havas confirmed one of its executives had been charged without naming Dorent, and Bollore group spokesman Michel Calzaroni didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Alix.
Havas said in a statement it’s cooperating with authorities and also highlighted the presumption of innocence.
The charges capped a tense two days of questioning after Bollore voluntarily went to police on Tuesday morning. He was held until Wednesday afternoon, when he was brought before the case’s two lead investigators, officials known in France as investigative magistrates.
The billionaire was then charged for corruption of a foreign official and aiding and abetting forgery and use of forged documents, the person familiar said. While the same charges were brought against Alix, Dorent was charged with forgery and embezzlement but simply labeled a material witness on the corruption of foreign official allegation, said the person. This latter status indicates investigators suspect he may have been involved in the misconduct but lack sufficient proof to file an indictment.
In France, investigative magistrates can decide to charge companies or individuals in a procedure known as “mise en examen” when there is “serious and consistent” evidence showing likely involvement in the matter under investigation. They can then decide whether to refer a case to trial, but aren’t involved after that stage.
Bollore leads a company with a market value of $14.7 billion that has a near-monopoly on ports in West and Central Africa, holding concessions to operate container terminals in 15 nations. The company also runs 25 dry ports including in landlocked nations such as Burkina Faso and Chad. The group’s market share in Africa is about 13 percent, according to the company’s website. He is also the biggest shareholder in Vivendi SA, though last week he handed over the reins as chairman -- a post he’s held since 2014 -- to his son, Yannick Bollore.
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