French rugby was reeling Tuesday after federation president Bernard Laporte received a two-year suspended prison sentence on corruption charges just nine months before France hosts the sport’s World Cup.
Laporte, 58, was convicted after a French court ruled he showed favoritism in awarding a shirt sponsorship contract for the national side to Mohed Altrad, the billionaire owner of Top 14 champions Montpellier.
He was also banned from holding any rugby post for two years, but this is suspended pending an appeal which Laporte’s lawyer said was imminent.
Laporte, however, later stepped down from his role as vice-chairman of the sport’s global governing body, World Rugby, pending a review by the body’s ethics officer.
“World Rugby notes the decision by World Rugby vice-chairman Bernard Laporte to self-suspend from all positions held within its governance structures with immediate effect following his conviction by the French court in relation to domestic matters, and pending his appeal,” World Rugby said.
“While acknowledging Laporte’s self-suspension and right of appeal, given the serious nature of the verdict World Rugby’s Executive Committee has referred the matter to its independent ethics officer for review in accordance with its integrity code,” it added.
– Earthquake for rugby –
Laporte faces problems on the domestic front, too, with Florian Grill, who narrowly lost to him in the 2020 election for federation chief, calling for Laporte and the entire board to stand down.
“It is unheard of in rugby, this is an earthquake,” Grill told AFP.
“We have never before seen a president of the federation condemned to two years in prison, even if it suspended.
“We think the 40 members of the board of directors should draw the obvious conclusions and resign.”
French Sports Minister Amélie Oudea-Castera said the sentence was an “obstacle for Bernard Laporte to be able, as it stands, to continue his mission in good conditions” as federation president.
Oudea-Castera called for a “new democratic era to allow French rugby to rebound as quickly as possible and sufficiently healthy and solid, with a governance by the federation that will have the full confidence of the clubs”.
The court found that Laporte ensured a series of marketing decisions favorable to Altrad — who was given an 18-month suspended award and 50,000 euro fine — in exchange for a 180,000 euro ($191,000) 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, of which he should serve one behind bars, and the two others on probation.
The friendship and business links between Laporte and Altrad are at the heart of the case.
It goes back to February 2017, when they signed a deal under which Laporte agreed to appear at Altrad group conferences, and sold his image reproduction rights, in return for 180,000 euros.
But while that sum was paid to Laporte, prosecutors claim that he never actually provided the services he signed up for.
– Suspicious deals –
Laporte did, however, make several public statements backing Altrad and, in March 2017, signed the 1.8-million-euro deal with the businessman making his namesake firm 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 twice to the World Cup semi-finals (2003 and 2007), was also found guilty of favoritism with regards to Altrad’s Montpellier Herault Rugby (MHR) club.
He was convicted for intervening with French rugby’s federal disciplinary commission to reduce a fine against MHR to 20,000 euros — it was originally 70,000 euros — 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”.
The verdict comes only nine months before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in France on September 8, 2023, with matches played in nine stadiums across the country.