The heir to the Nina Ricci perfume fortune is to go on trial for tax fraud in what is seen as a test case related to the HSBC tax avoidance scandal.
Arlette Ricci, 74, will be the first of around 50 wealthy French nationals brought before a judge accused of hiding money from France’s tax authorities in Switzerland. The case comes days after the Swiss branch of HSBC, Britain’s biggest bank, was officially put under investigation over allegations that it helped rich customers avoid taxes.
HSBC Private Bank also faces charges of fraud from the Belgian authorities.
Ricci, likely to appear in court on 19 December, was mise-en-examen – the French equivalent of being charged – in 2011.
Her name had featured in bank files handed over by HSBC Private Bank employee Hervé Falciani to the French authorities three years earlier.
Known as the Falciani dossier, the documents contained several thousand names of French citizens allegedly squirrelling their fortunes offshore, out of the sight of France’s fiscal authorities.
In 2009 the then budget minister Éric Woerth admitted French investigators had the names of 3,000 suspected tax fraudsters who held non-declared bank accounts in Switzerland and urged them to “regularise” their tax situation or face investigation.
A year later, only 50 cases, including Ricci’s, remained unsettled and were handed over to the courts. She was arrested in 2011 after police arived at her Paris apartment on the chic left-bank Boulevard Saint-Germain, at dawn and was held in custody for 48 hours before being mise-en-examen on allegations she held non-declared HSBC accounts in Geneva via offshore companies.
HSBC Private Bank is accused of encouraging and helping wealthy clients to set up offshore companies and engaging in illegal banking practices. It says it is cooperating with the investigation.
The Ricci case is the first from the Falciani dossier to be brought to court, and is being closely followed by investigators and financial institutions.
Ricci has denied the allegations, saying measures taken to optimise her tax bill were perfectly legal. Two years ago her lawyer called for the case to be thrown out, arguing that the Falciani documents could not be used as they had been stolen from HSBC Private Bank. France’s highest judicial appeal court dismissed the appeal.
Nina Ricci, whose real name was Maria Adélaïde Nielli, was an Italian-born clothes designer who settled in France aged 12 in 1895. Her son Robert – Arlette Ricci’s father – developed the company’s perfume offshoot and raised its international profile.
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