Rugby: French chief Bernard Laporte found guilty in corruption trial

President of the French Rugby Federation Bernard Laporte (centre), seen arriving at the correctional court in Paris on Dec 13. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS – A French court on Tuesday sentenced French Rugby Federation (FFR) president Bernard Laporte to a two-year suspended prison term on corruption charges, less than a year before France hosts the sport’s World Cup.

He was convicted after the court ruled he showed favouritism in awarding a shirt sponsorship contract for the national side to Mohed Altrad, the billionaire owner of Top 14 champions Montpellier.

Laporte was also banned from holding any rugby post for two years but this is suspended pending an appeal that his lawyer said was imminent.

The court found that Laporte ensured a series of marketing decisions favourable to Altrad – who was given an 18-month suspended sentence and €50,000 (S$71,600) fine – in exchange for a €180,000 image licensing contract that was never actually carried out.

Altrad’s lawyer said he would study the decision before deciding on whether to appeal.

At the trial’s close in September, prosecutors said they were seeking a three-year prison sentence for Laporte, now 58, of which he should serve one behind bars, and the two others on probation.

According to the charges, which his defence said were “trumped up”, he carried out illegal influence peddling and passive corruption, mostly for the benefit of Altrad.

The two men’s friendship and business is at the heart of the case.

Their links go back to February 2017, when they signed a deal under which Laporte agreed to appear in Altrad group conferences, and sold his image reproduction rights in return for the €180,000.

But while that sum was indeed paid to him, prosecutors claim that he never actually provided the services he signed up for.

Laporte did, however, make several public statements backing Altrad and, in March 2017, signed a €1.8-million deal making Altrad the first-ever sponsor to appear on the French national team’s jerseys.

Even now, Altrad’s logo features on the shirts thanks to a follow-up deal negotiated by Laporte in 2018 and which prosecutors say bears all the hallmarks of corruption.

Laporte, formerly a highly successful coach who guided France to the World Cup semi-finals in 2003 and 2007 and achieved Six Nations Grand Slams in 2002 and 2004, was also found guilty of favouritism to Altrad’s Montpellier Herault Rugby (MHR) club.

He was convicted of intervening with French rugby’s federal disciplinary commission to reduce a fine for MHR to €20,000 – it was originally €70,000 – after several telephone calls from Laporte.

While prosecutors saw this and several more incidents as proof of illicit favouritism, Laporte himself had claimed there was no “cause-effect relationship”.

On the last day of the trial in October, Laporte’s lawyer Fanny Colin accused the prosecution of “confirmation bias” by “taking into account only elements backing their original assumptions”.

Following the verdict, Laporte quit his role as vice-president of World Rugby, the sport’s governing body announced.

On Wednesday, New Zealand Rugby said it was seeking urgent answers from All Blacks shirt sponsor Altrad, which in August inked a six-year deal to sponsor the country’s men and women’s teams shirts. AFP

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.