Orange SA Chief Executive Officer Stephane Richard was cleared by Paris judges of allegations he helped cheat the French government out of about 403 million euros ($451 million) when he was the finance minister’s chief of staff over a decade ago.
There was no proof that Richard took part in any fraud, Presiding Judge Christine Mee said Tuesday as she read the verdict. The panel of three judges also cleared businessman Bernard Tapie, who prosecutors said benefited from the fraud.
“It’s a great relief to see my innocence totally proved,” Richard, 57, told reporters after the verdict.
The verdict could have triggered a top management shakeup at Orange, France’s largest telecommunications firm after Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said last year that Richard would have to resign if convicted. Richard has led Orange for about a decade, during which he calmed labor unrest following a wave of employee suicides and saw the company through a sustained competitive assault by low-cost telecom challenger Iliad SA.
The trial related to Credit Lyonnais’ sale of Tapie’s stake in Adidas AG more than two decades ago. Tapie accused the then-state-owned bank of cheating him, sparking a slow-burning dispute that would eventually affect some of France’s most prominent politicians and corporate officials.
In 2016, Christine Lagarde, then the head of the International Monetary Fund, was found guilty of negligence for failing, as French Finance Minister, to appeal an arbitration panel’s multi-million-euro award to Tapie. Although she was convicted, she avoided a jail term or any fine, allowing her to continue in her role at the IMF.