French court convicts Nina Ricci perfume heiress of tax fraud

Arlette Ricci, heiress to the famed Nina Ricci perfume and fashion empire, and one of one of Europe's richest women, was convicted yesterday of tax evasion in France with the help of British banking giant HSBC's Swiss subsidiary.

Ricci, 74, has been sentenced by a Paris court to a three-year prison term, two of them suspended, for 'particularly determined willingness for over 20 years' to hide money she inherited from her father in Swiss bank accounts.

The court also imposed a €1-million ($1.1 million) fine on  the heiress.

''The seriousness of the facts is an exceptional threat to public order and the republican pact,'' the court order said.

The judges also ordered to confiscate her properties worth €4 million in Paris and Corsica, saying that they were transferred by her to family trusts to restructure her assets in an attempt to ''organize her insolvability'' to escape penalties.

Arlette Ricci is the first of about 50 affluent French citizens being pursued in the country's courts for allegedly hiding money in Swiss banks to evade taxes.

Ricci was charged for hiding €18 million to avoid French taxes. Denying the accusations, she argued the measures taken to optimise her tax bill were legal. She said she simply tried to avoid tax, which is legal, rather than evade it, which is not.

However, a bugged telephonic conversation between Ricci and her daughter Margot Vignat revealed otherwise.

Two of Ricci's accomplices have also been penalised. Her tax adviser Henri-Nicolas Fleurance was given a one-year suspended prison sentence and a €10,000 fine for trying to arrange her insolvency while her daughter who is 51, an eight-month suspended prison period for fiscal fraud.

Ricci's lawyers said they would consider the judgment before deciding whether to appeal.

The court sentence comes just few days after the French authorities imposed a €1.1-billion bail and commenced criminal proceedings against HSBC Holdings Plc over tax evasion by its subsidiary Swiss private bank in 2006-2007.

The bank was accused of helping its wealthy French clients hide around €5 billion and evade taxes. (See: French court orders HSBC to pay $1.1 bn bail over Swiss tax scandal)

The information on the tax fraud was leaked out by a former HSBC employee, Herve Falciani, to French government in 2008. It contained around 3,000 suspected offenders including Ricci, holding illegal Swiss bank accounts.

Ricci was arrested from her Paris apartment in 2011. Her lawyers argued that Falciani's documents were stolen and should not be admitted as evidence.

London-based HSBC is under probe in several countries on allegations that it hid millions of dollars as it helped wealthy customers around the world evade taxes. In its annual report, the bank acknowledged that formal investigations are going on in Belgium, Argentina, Switzerland and India.

Italian-born Nina Ricci - her real name as Maria Adelaide Nielle - and her son Robert Ricci founded Nina Ricci fashion house in Paris in 1932. She died in 1970 and Robert developed the company's perfume business. Robert's daughter Arlette inherited his fortune on his death in 1988, becoming one of Europe's richest women.