PARIS Nov 27 Orange Chief Executive
Stephane Richard faces a ruling in a French administrative court
for his role as a government aide in a 2008 arbitration case in
which the state awarded a large pay-out to businessman Bernard
Tapie, sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Richard, who is being investigated in a separate criminal
case on the affair, will be questioned in January or February by
France's Court of Budgetary and Financial Discipline (CBFD),
said the sources, who requested anonymity.
The hearing comes at a sensitive time for Richard, who is
expected to seek a second term at the head of Orange, one of
France's biggest state-backed companies.
Richard, who at the time of the arbitration was a senior
Finance Ministry official, has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
A prosecutor for the CBFD, which is charged with ensuring
the proper use of public funds by state employees and can levy
fines, decided on Nov. 20 there was sufficient evidence for
Richard and two other public servants to go before the court,
the sources said.
A ruling is expected a few weeks after testimony is heard.
The government of President Francois Hollande will have to
decide whether to renew Richard, who took the helm in early
2010, sometime before the group's annual shareholder meeting due
in May. The state owns 28.4 percent of Orange, Europe's
fourth-biggest telecom operator by sales.
Richard was a top aide to former Finance Minister Christine
Lagarde in 2008 when the government of the day awarded Tapie 285
million euros ($373 million) in damages in a long battle with
now-defunct bank Credit Lyonnais.
Tapie, a supporter of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, had
contested the bank's role in the sale of his stake in sports
clothing firm Adidas in 1993.
In the separate criminal case, investigating judges are
examining allegations that Tapie got favourable treatment
because of his political ties when the government decided to
take the case to arbitration instead of court.
In June, Richard was placed under formal investigation in
the criminal case for fraud, raising questions as to whether he
could continue to lead Orange.
In French criminal law, a formal investigation means there
is "serious or consistent evidence" pointing to likely
implication of a suspect in a crime. It is one step closer to a
trial, but some such investigations have been dropped without
going to court.
The same presumption of innocence exists in the CBFD
administrative court, which has not yet ruled that Richard
(Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey; Writing by Leila Abboud;
Editing by Mark John)