Ex-Areva boss speaks out in mining deal controversy
PARIS Jan 16 (Reuters) - Former Areva boss Anne Lauvergeon hit back on Monday over a reported spying case and fraud allegations that cast doubt over the $2.5 billion purchase of miner UraMin made on her watch in 2007.
The conditions under which the Canada-listed miner was acquired, as the nuclear industry was undergoing a global renaissance, have been questioned since Areva's new management wrote down nearly the entire value of UraMin in December.
Three separate official investigations are underway - by nuclear reactor maker Areva, the French energy ministry and parliament - to examine the circumstances of the purchase and determine what went wrong. But there is no judicial investigation. ID:nL6E8CD2R5]
Lauvergeon, who was abruptly replaced at the helm of Areva last June, on Monday defended her decision to purchase UraMin, saying the deal was needed to diversify the company's geographical footprint and was made at a fair price.
Lauvergeon, who had kept a low media profile since June, filed a legal suit last month over a confidential intelligence report into whether her husband, a business consultant, illegally benefited from the UraMin deal.
"I have been attacked, slandered, spied on, in an unfair way. Too much is too much," she told a press briefing in central Paris on Monday, flanked by her husband and their lawyer.
Lauvergeon named Sebastien de Montessus, whom she appointed as the head of Areva's mining business in 2007, as one of the people who ordered the Swiss report.
"I would be surprised if an ambitious young man like Sebastien de Montessus had commissionned a report on his boss's husband without having powerful allies," she said.
A spokeswoman for Areva, which is 90 percent owned by the French state, said de Montessus did not wish to comment.
"Areva does not wish to fuel the current controversy and get into a conflict of persons. The priority is to turn around the company so we will wait for the conclusions of an internal investigation" on the UraMin deal, the spokeswoman said.
Lauvergeon said the spying report, as well as a separate confidential investigation by a French consultant saying Areva may have been the victim of a fraud, was part of "a manoeuvre to destabilise" her and "justify" her dismissal.
"To justify the unjustifiable, you have to try to find evidence," said Lauvergeon, who reportedly fell out of favour with French President Nicolas Sarkozy after turning down his offer to become economy minister in 2007.
"For the past four years, I have been the target of multiple attempts of destabilisation that have come from the highest political circles," Lauvergeon said, declining to give names.
Dubbed "Atomic Anne" or "Madame Mon" by French media for her feisty personality, Lauvergeon was a polarising presence during her 10-year tenure at Areva, drawing fierce criticism from some quarters as well as admiration from others.
Lauvergeon was replaced by her former No. 2, Luc Oursel, after she came under fire for cost overruns at a project in Finland, the loss of a huge deal in Abu Dhabi and a public spat with EDF head Henri Proglio, who is reported to be close to Sarkozy.
One of the confidential reports to which Lauvergeon referred was produced by Marc Eichinger, the founder of Assistance Petroleum International Capital, a consultancy based in Sciez on the French-Swiss border.
Eichinger told Reuters on Monday that he was asked to write the report by some Areva executives at the start of 2010 and had concluded that the deal should not have been made as UraMin had no production or proven uranium reserves.
Eichinger declined to make further comment, saying he had been asked by Areva's head of legal affairs not to talk to the press.
He also declined to name the persons who asked for the report, only saying they were part of Areva's asset management division.
Eichinger declined to give Reuters a copy of his report, but Lauvergeon said she obtained a copy of it in recent days. She said she had no knowledge of the existence of such a report while she was still at Areva.
Marc Goua, a French socialist parliamentarian appointed to write a report on the nuclear industry, including the UraMin deal, said he had read Eichinger's report and that this contained no proof that a fraud had taken place.
"The Eichinger report does not seem to contain evidence, only insinuations," Goua told Reuters on Monday, adding that there may have been a certain complacency at Areva regarding the assessment of the potential of the UraMin purchase.
In a preliminary report, Goua said the 2007 acquisition was rushed by Areva and the economy ministry on the basis that securing uranium supplies had become critical for Areva to win multi-billion-dollar nuclear reactor deals in China.
The speed of the deal had left little time for fact finding on the ground, Goua said. (Additional reporting by Muriel Boselli, Caroline Jacobs and Nathalie Huet; Editing by James Regan and David Cowell)