PARIS (Reuters) - Societe Generale’s chief defended the bank over the Panama Papers revelations during a two-hour grilling by lawmakers on Wednesday, rejecting accusations the French lender was at the heart of tax evasion.
The public Senate hearing held to get to the root of the matter came the same day Le Monde newspaper widened the list of French banks under the tax haven spotlight to include BNP Paribas, Credit Agricole and Credit Mutuel.
Societe Generale Chief Executive Frederic Oudea has been thrust to the fore of a controversy over the use of secretive tax havens since an investigative news syndicate exposed the activities of Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca.
The reports, based on 11.5 million leaked documents, put SocGen near the top of a list of banks around the world that had created hundreds of thousands of shell companies in Panama and other offshore centres between 1977 and 2015. The leaked documents showed the French bank had created 979 such firms.
Also at issue were accusations that Oudea misled senators when he told a Senate committee in 2012 that his bank had closed operations in Panama and other tax havens identified as overly secretive or short of international transparency standards.
At the public hearing on Wednesday, Oudea reiterated that the bank had no offices or staff in Panama as of 2012, as he had told the Senate committee that year, when he was also head of France’s banking association.
“To imply that Societe Generale group is at the heart of tax evasion is false and unjustified,” Oudea said.
The senator who chaired the committee in question back in 2012, Philippe Dominati, said on Wednesday he did not think there were any grounds for legal action against Oudea over the allegations he misled the upper house then.
It was not immediately clear when and if there would be the final ruling on the matter.
Oudea also told lawmakers SocGen had not opened any offshore companies registered in Panama to manage wealth for clients using Mossack Fonseca since 2012, with one temporary exception.
The one exception he mentioned was a company set up for a Swiss tax resident of Belgian nationality which was closed after three months because the client decided not to use it.
He said SocGen had opened a number of offshore structures using Mossack Fonseca before 2012. As of Wednesday it had 66 active client accounts linked to Mossack Fonseca, but he said they were legal and fiscally transparent.
Separately, French newspaper Le Monde published the numbers of active offshore companies set up by Mossack Fonseca for clients of French banks as of the end of 2015.
According to the newspaper, SocGen had 71 left, Credit Agricole had 54, Credit Mutuel had 11 and BNP Paribas had six.
BNP declined to comment. Credit Agricole said its wealth management arm no longer operated offshore companies on behalf of its clients.
Credit Mutuel said it had never had dealings with Mossack Fonseca. “Some of our clients have on their own decided to set up such types of structures,” a Credit Mutuel spokesman said.
Editing by David Clarke