- Nov 11, 2007
A British woman acrimoniously divorcing a French millionaire arms broker could hold the key to the “Karachi affair” that threatens to poison the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.
An investigating magistrate in the case yesterday questioned Nicola Johnson, 50, who is estranged from Ziad Takieddine, a Franco-Lebanese businessman and her husband of 30 years.
She alleges that Mr Takieddine, a middle man in huge arms and petrol contracts between France and several Middle Eastern countries, has hidden his true fortune in a web of offshore accounts.
She is demanding a €25 million (£22 million) cut of his estate, which her lawyer estimates to be €104 million. However, Mr Takieddine declares only relatively modest earnings of around €200,000 per year.
Despite making use of a string of opulent properties, whose value in France alone is estimated to be €40 million, it is alleged that he paid no income or wealth tax in the country last year.
Miss Johnson, about whom little is known, is fighting a 2009 French court ruling that provides her with just €1,000 per month in alimony.
“[He] has put in place a highly sophisticated system to hide his revenues and his real assets to French authorities,” her lawyer, William Bourdon, alleged yesterday. “He long claimed that the majority of his assets didn’t belong to him and that he only had temporary use of them as part of a work contract,” he told Libération newspaper. Earlier this month, a French family court judge ordered all assets that Mr Takieddine held “in common” with his wife to be frozen because of the risk of him selling them off before an appeal ruling on Sept 15.
These assets include Warwick House, in Holland Park, west London, estimated to be worth more than £17 million, and a palatial Paris pied-à-terre in the chic Avenue Georges-Mandel worth an estimate €12 million, whose nominal owner is one Alain F., Mr Takieddine’s butler.
The judge mentions properties in Antibes on the Riviera, and money from the sale of other Paris flats and the couple’s private jet.
Mr Takieddine itemised assets worth €97.2 million in a statement he signed in 2008 as part of a loan application, since obtained by Mediapart, an investigative news website.
Against the backdrop of this marital dispute, French judges hope to lift the lid on Mr Takieddine’s alleged role in the “Karachi affair” – a political funding scandal involving alleged kickbacks on a 1994 arms sale to Pakistan and the death of French naval engineers in a bomb attack.
Examining magistrates opened an inquiry last year into the submarine sale, and another involving frigates to Saudi Arabia. They are looking into whether some of the large sums officially destined as commissions to officials served as illegal party funding in France.
Seized documents allege that parts of the “commissions” – legal under French law at the time – were siphoned off to help fund the 1994 presidential campaign of Edouard Balladur, then prime minister. Mr Sarkozy was his budget minister and campaign spokesman. Both men have flatly denied allegations of involvement. Mr Sarkozy has previously described suggestions of his involvement in illegal kickbacks as “grotesque, ridiculous and a fable”.
When Jacques Chirac won the election, it is alleged that he punished Mr Balladur by halting the remaining payments to senior Pakistani figures.
Mr Takieddine acknowledges receiving payment from a sale of frigates to Saudi Arabia, a contract authorised in 1994 by Mr Sarkozy. Documents obtained by Mediapart suggest he received €91 million between 1997 and 1998. France also signed a deal that year to sell three submarines to Pakistan. Several witnesses have told the magistrates that Mr Takieddine was imposed by the Balladur camp as an intermediary. He denies any role.
In May 2002, 11 French submarine engineers and four Pakistanis were killed in a bomb attack in Karachi, blamed on al-Qaeda terrorists. But a separate investigation is under way into whether it was a revenge attack by disgruntled officials for the non-payment of sweeteners.
Yesterday judge Renaud Van Ruymbeke was expected to quiz Miss Johnson on her husband’s professional movements and way of life at the time of the submarine deal. He was also expected to ask about her knowledge of where he placed his fortune. The affair is embarrassing for the president as Mr Takieddine is close to several of his nearest allies. Mediapart recently published photos of the head of his UMP party, Jean-François Copé, at Mr Takieddine’s Riviera property.
Mr Takieddine said he had “no comment”. “Let’s wait for justice to run its course and it will all fizzle out,” he said.