PARIS — It ended with a bang.
François-Marie Banier, the photographer who pocketed more than $1 billion-worth of gifts from L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, has been sentenced to jail and slapped with a fine for abusing her mental frailty. He was also ordered to reimburse more than $173 million to the Bettencourt family.
It was one of several verdicts handed down on Thursday by judges in the criminal court of Bordeaux, France, in the case now widely called the Bettencourt affair.
The trial opened in late January with 10 people charged with having abused the weakness of Liliane Bettencourt, the wealthiest woman in France who with her family has an estimated net worth of over $40 billion. She has long been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The defendants all denied wrongdoing in the legal proceedings that lasted five weeks, with closing arguments heard in late February.
The court said in its ruling that Bettencourt’s vulnerability was “apparent and known to everyone who knew [her] well and saw her regularly.”
Banier was given a three-year jail sentence, of which six months will be suspended; fined 350,000 euros, or $381,900 at current exchange, and told to return 158 million euros, or $173.5 million, to the Bettencourt family.
The saga dates back to December 2007, when Bettencourt’s daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers brought a lawsuit against Banier. She alleged he exploited the weakness of her mother, who gave him assets valued at around 1 billion euros, or $1.09 billion.
“The court of Bordeaux has made its decision. My first thoughts go to my mother, her honor and her dignity, and to our family,” said Bettencourt Meyers after the hearing, for which she and her two sons were present. “But it [is not for] me to comment any decision of justice.”
Others found guilty of having taken advantage of Bettencourt included Patrice de Maistre, a past financial adviser to the L’Oréal heiress, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison, of which one year is to be suspended. He was given a 250,000 euro, or $272,845, fine, as well.
Pascal Wilhelm, de Maistre’s successor as Bettencourt’s financial advisor, who is also a lawyer, was sentenced to 30 months in jail with one year suspended, and fined 250,000 euros.
Carlos Cassina Vejarano, the former administrator of Bettencourt’s island in the Seychelles, also must pay a 250,000 euro fine and was sentenced to 18 months’ confinement with nine months suspended.
Martin d’Orgeval, Banier’s partner, received an 18-month suspended jail term and has to pay 50,000 euros, or $54,570.
Jean-Michel Normand, a notary, got an 18-month suspended sentence and was fined 100,000 euros, or $109,165. And Stéphane Courbit, in whose company LOV Group Bettencourt had invested largely, was fined 250,000 euros.
They have 10 days to appeal the sentences.
Meanwhile, Éric Woerth, France’s former budget minister, was acquitted of having abused the weakness of Bettencourt and of influence-peddling charges due to lack of sufficient evidence.
The court’s deputy prosecutor had requested sentences for four of the defendants, a suspended prison sentence for one and acquittals for four. No punishment was suggested for Bettencourt’s former nurse, who tried to hang himself on the eve of the hearing. His trial will take place in October.
The steepest penalty was requested for Banier — including three years imprisonment and a fine of 375,000 euros, or $408,485.
The Bettencourt affair has been full of high drama and intrigue, with surprising twists and turns. At one point it was revealed that Bettencourt’s butler had secretly taped conversations. The case morphed into a state issue and even had two plays written in its honor.
Other parts of the lawsuit keep winding through the French judicial system, although Thursday marked the close of the parts initiated by Bettencourt Meyers.