Eight convicted of fleecing French billionaire L'Oreal heiress

Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers (centre), daughter of France's richest woman Liliane Bettencourt, flanked by her sons Nicolas (at her left) and Jean-Victor (centre,background), leaves on May 28, 2015, the Bordeaux courthouse, south-western France, after
Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers (centre), daughter of France's richest woman Liliane Bettencourt, flanked by her sons Nicolas (at her left) and Jean-Victor (centre,background), leaves on May 28, 2015, the Bordeaux courthouse, south-western France, after the deliberations of the tribunal in the trial of ten people charged with exploiting elderly L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. -- PHOTO: AFP

BERTRAND BOURDEAUX, France(AFP) - A French court on Thursday convicted eight members of L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt's entourage of exploiting the frail billionaire, with one ordered to repay her 158 million euros (S$233 million).

Bettencourt's close confidant, Francois-Marie Banier, a 67-year-old photographer who is godfather to actor Johnny Depp's daughter, was sentenced to three years in prison, six months of which were suspended.

Banier was also given a 350,000-euro fine on top of the 158 million euros in damages.

Two men charged with overseeing Bettencourt's vast fortune, Patrice de Maistre and his successor Pascal Wilhelm, were both sentenced to 30 months in prison, 12 of which were suspended, and fines of 250,000 euros.

The trial began in January with 10 people accused of exploiting the 92-year-old, who was declared unfit to run her own affairs in 2011 after a medical report showed she had suffered from "mixed dementia" and "moderately severe" Alzheimer's disease since 2006.

However the start was delayed when Alain Thurin, a former nurse for Bettencourt, tried to hang himself on the eve of the trial in the woods near his house.

His case will now be heard on a later date.

The trial lifted the lid on an explosive legal and political drama that even dragged in former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The complex saga began in 2007 when Bettencourt's daughter Francoise filed charges against Banier for exploiting her mother's growing mental frailty after the death of her father Andre.

Bettencourt had taken celebrity photographer Banier under her wing, lavishing him with some 400 million euros worth of paintings, life insurance funds and millions of euros in cash.

The woman whom Forbes magazine describes as the world's 10th richest person also made him her sole heir, a move she would later revoke.

Her daughter told the court that Banier was "a con man" who helped poison her relationship with her mother.

Banier, who owns at least two flats in an upmarket part of Paris, two properties in Marrakesh and another in southern France, told the court he had assets and money "well before knowing Liliane Bettencourt." "She took pleasure in giving the money," he told the court in January, adding that Bettencourt was in no way diminished mentally when he knew her.

However the president of the court Denis Roucou said Banier had "a real moral and psychological hold" on Bettencourt and had gone out of his way to take advantage of her "confused state".

"She found herself at the mercy of men who she had trusted," Roucou said, adding that those close to her could not have been unaware of her mental frailty.

Meanwhile, de Maistre was accused of encouraging Bettencourt to commit tax evasion, and was convicted of money laundering as well as exploitation.

De Maistre, who received 12 million euros in cash and donations from Bettencourt, burst into tears several times when he took the stand in January, saying he had been overcome by the family's gilded standing and unwittingly plunged into a world of hidden bank accounts and drama.

He was one of several members of the entourage secretly recorded by her butler, who had grown increasingly concerned about her mental fragility.

De Maistre was also accused of getting Bettencourt to hand over envelopes of cash to members of the conservative former ruling UMP party, such as his friend, Eric Woerth, a former minister and campaign treasurer of Sarkozy's 2007 presidential bid.

The affair tarnished the latter half of Sarkozy's presidency, and when he lost the 2012 election he was placed under formal investigation for illegal campaign financing and taking advantage of Bettencourt.

However the charges against Sarkozy were dropped in October 2013 due to lack of evidence and in this trial Woerth was also cleared of wrongdoing.

The other accused received sentences ranging from fines to jail time.

Bettencourt's father Eugene Schueller founded L'Oreal in 1909, starting with hair dye and later branching out to form the world's largest cosmetics company, famous for the advertising slogan Because I'm Worth It.