Left to right: US president George H.W. Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush, UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Roger De Clerck on his 75th birthday in 1999
One of Belgium’s longest-running fraud cases has come to an end as those accused have agreed to pay a total of €50 million as a settlement.
The agreement – which was approved by a court before the ink was even dry – brings to an end a case that has dragged on for 30 years.
The case concerns Beaulieu International Group, a major textiles company based in Waregem in West Flanders, in the region known for its textile barons. Among them: Roger De Clerck, chief executive of the company.
In the 1980s, De Clerck was accused and found guilty of sending his wealth off to tax havens to avoid tax – something that in those days was still being prosecuted. However he was not punished, allegedly because of the importance of his social role in the area.
Buying off court cases was even then common for Beaulieu. Also in the Eighties, two De Clerck sons were arrested in the UK for selling carpets for black money. De Clerck père put money on the table, and the complaint was gone.
The current case that has now been closed began in the early Nineties, with a case that took more than a decade to even come to court, thanks to an army of Beaulieu lawyers who took every opportunity to slow down the enquiry by bringing every possible objection. Nonetheless, the investigation into the finances of the company involved 150 search warrants, about 1,000 interviews and a case file of 300,000 pages.
In 2007, irony of ironies, the Belgian state was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for the delay in bringing the case to justice, and was ordered to pay the De Clerck family €20,000 euros.
Later in the Nineties, Roger De Clerck decided to divide his company shares up among six of his offspring. But two were left out: the eldest Jan, and the youngest Dominiek. Their revenge was to turn Beaulieu story over to the authorities. Which brings us to the present.
The business of buying off a prosecution with money on the table might appear the very picture of corruption, but it is entirely legal – when financial crimes like tax evasion are concerned. The only proviso: the settlement must be brought before a court and approved. The taxman himself does not have the final say, for obvious reasons.
Meanwhile, the proposed settlement of €50 million is unlikely to cause sleepless nights for any of the De Clerck family, whose combined wealth is estimated at €1.3 billion.