Town-hall strike over Tapie case: Staff walk out as officials questioned in French football bribery investigation

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The Independent Online
STAFF at the town hall in Bethune, northern France, went on strike yesterday in protest at the detention of three senior civic employees for questioning in a case involving Bernard Tapie, the president of the Olympique Marseille (OM) football team and former minister.

The staff, all working for Jacques Mellick, the mayor of Bethune and the former junior defence minister under the last Socialist government, were taken into custody by investigators on Wednesday so that an examining magistrate could check testimony by Mr Mellick that he was in Mr Tapie's Paris office on 17 June. Taking such witnesses into custody can be a device to ensure that they cannot co-ordinate their accounts.

Last week, Mr Mellick said he had had an appointment in Paris on the afternoon on 17 June with Mr Tapie. His words seemed to deal a death blow to a statement by Boro Primorac, former coach of the Valenciennes football team, who said he had met Mr Tapie in his Paris office that day.

Mr Primorac said Mr Tapie asked him to 'carry the can' in return for money in a case in which Valenciennes players alleged that OM offered bribes to fix a match with Marseille on 20 May; OM won 1-0. OM later won the European Cup and the French league championship.

Valenciennes dropped to the Second Division and police said they had found 250,000 francs ( pounds 28,000) hidden in the garden of the family of a Valenciennes player. Since the affair broke two months ago, there has been no evidence that Mr Tapie was involved. And talk that he might have been seemed to be scotched by Mr Mellick's account of the 17 June appointment.

New doubts surfaced this week, when a Bethune town hall house magazine printed a photograph of Mr Mellick; with unusual attention to detail, a caption said it had been taken at 2pm on 17 June. Mr Mellick, backed by one town hall employee, said that in fact it had been taken at 5pm, 90 minutes after he said he had left Mr Tapie's office. Given the 225km (140 miles) between Paris and Bethune, Mr Mellick presumably travelled at around 93mph, well over the speed limit.

Last week, the magistrate investigating the OM-Valenciennes case searched Mr Tapie's Paris office. According to press reports, the magistrate found papers giving full details of Mr Tapie's activities until June but not including 17 June. A similar search of Bethune town hall turned up detailed records for all but June, these reports said.