BNP Paribas says is only a witness in Madoff probe

PARIS Thu Mar 1, 2012 3:44pm EST

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PARIS (Reuters) - France's biggest listed bank, BNP Paribas, said on Thursday it was only a "witness" in a French magistrate's inquiry into convicted fraudster Bernard Madoff's $65 billion Ponzi scheme, after a website reported it faced being put under investigation for potentially fraudulent behavior.

The report, posted on Mediapart's website, cited an unnamed source saying a Paris court had called for an investigation into the way BNP handled clients' investments in funds that channelled money to Madoff. The ruling suggests "the bank may itself be guilty of fraudulent behavior," the report said.

A BNP spokeswoman said: "The magistrate ... led an inquiry for nearly two years and concluded that BNP could not be accused of criminal responsibility. Today the examining chamber is asking (him) to pursue his inquiry. BNP Paribas, simply an assisted witness in this process, is serenely awaiting justice."

In France, the status of "assisted witness" is considered different to, and less serious than, being officially placed under investigation.

Madoff is currently serving a 150-year term. His fraud was uncovered in December 2008, when he ran out of money to meet redemption requests.

Since then, several legal battles have begun to try to retrieve investor funds. In the U.S., the trustee seeking money for Madoff's victims filed complaints against several banks -- including BNP Paribas -- while in France, a group of 78 investors have sought to recoup $40 million from UBS.

(Reporting by Lionel Laurent)

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