April 28, 2003

“BUSINESS AS USUAL:”

Yes, conceded the defendant — a man named Yves Verwaerde — he had opened a $2 million Swiss bank account with the code name “Salad” in July 1991, when he was a Member of the European Parliament. It was his other employer at the time, the French oil company Elf, that asked him to open the account, he explained. The salad full of greenbacks was earmarked for Jonas Savimbi, the rebel leader in Angola, where Elf was negotiating important contracts.

Listening intently in the wood-paneled courtroom of the Paris Tribunal last week, Judge Michel Desplan had some questions. If this $2 million was for Savimbi, how come Verwaerde had allegedly used about $300,000 of it to build a villa for himself on Ibiza? And why did his wife have power of attorney over the account? Verwaerde didn’t miss a beat. He claimed that Savimbi himself had said he could dip into the money. As for his wife, “she was usually the one who picked up the telephone when it rang, so she spoke to Savimbi several times when he called my home,” he replied. . . .

Why would Elf make potentially illicit payments to French politicians? Le Floch-Prigent’s rationale had a touch of paranoia to it: “Elf is a French company up against the Anglo-Saxon world,” he told the court. “We are David against Goliath. Our politicians had to support us everywhere. In Africa, for example, if we got into a war between Socialists and Gaullists, we wouldn’t know where to go. A certain number of French politicians were capable of destabilizing Elf. We had to shut them up or make sure they were with us.”

Those damned Anglo-Saxons! We needed those villas to compete with them!