A Paris court on Wednesday sentenced two men to several years in jail for their role in a bizarre money-making scam that involved impersonating a French government minister to dupe the rich and famous, sometimes using a silicone mask in his likeness.
The court found that Gilbert Chikli, 54, and Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35 — who denied the charges — were the masterminds of the scam that saw three victims part with some 55 million euros ($62 million).
The heaviest sentence of 11 years plus a two-million-euro fine went to Chikli, who shouted “It’s a scandal” from the dock. “You should be ashamed.”
Lasarevitsch received a prison sentence of seven years and a fine of one million euros.
The Franco-Israeli pair was tried for organised fraud and usurping the identity of Jean-Yves Le Drian — now France’s foreign minister, but then minister of defence — to raise money from wealthy political, business and religious figures.
Five others aged 27 to 59 faced lesser charges. One was released Wednesday, and four others received sentences ranging from suspended 15-month terms to five years.
The scheme, which took place from 2015 to 2016, involved fraudsters posing as Le Drian to ask politicians and executives for financial aid for what they described as secret operations by the French state.
One would appear in video conferences behind a fake official desk, donning a dark suit and a silicone mask of Le Drian.
The fake “minister” made calls by telephone and video link to more than 150 targets — of whom three were successfully duped.
– A ‘game’ –
Prosecutors say the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, was conned by a Le Drian impersonator in 2016 and made five transfers for a total 20 million euros to Poland and China. Three of the payments were frozen, but 7.7 million euros disappeared.
A few months later, Turkish business magnate Inan Kirac was allegedly convinced to wire more than $47 million for what he thought was ransom money for two journalists held hostage in Syria.
Le Drian, a senior ally of President Emmanuel Macron, became foreign minister in 2017 after serving five years as defence minister.
In 2015, a French court convicted Chikli in absentia to seven years in prison for similar scams in 2005 and 2006, in which he posed as business chief executives.
On the run, he was arrested two years later with Lasarevitsch in Ukraine. On their phones, police found pictures of a silicone mask of Prince Albert II of Monaco, suggesting another hoax was in the planning stages.
Six of the defendants, including Chikli and Lasarevitsch, were charged over both the Le Drian scam and the suspected plot to target Prince Albert, while the seventh was charged solely over the alleged Monaco plot.
Others targeted, albeit unsuccessfully, included Gabon’s President Ali Bongo, French AIDS charity Sidaction, the chief executive of the Lafarge cement company and the archbishop of Paris.
In an interview with French television in 2010 over previous scams, Chikli said he was intrigued by the “game” of scamming.
His story inspired a 2015 film, “Je Compte Sur Vous” (I’m Counting on You).