The Telegraph, U.K.
Top Riviera magistrate 'raided database' for Masonic lodge
By Philip Jacobson in Nice
JEAN-PAUL RENARD, Nice's senior magistrate, is under investigation in what is potentially the most serious corruption case to hit the Cote d'Azur since the scandals of the 1970s.
Eric de Montgolfier: 'Fighting organised crime with the means at my disposal is like trying to empty the sea with a bucket'
The case is linked to "hidden networks" in police and judicial circles that have successfully "buried" inquiries into serious allegations against prominent local figures, says the prosecutor, Eric de Montgolfier. In some instances, he says, cover-ups date back to the late 1970s when Graham Greene - then living nearby in Antibes - penned his furious J'Accuse! attack on the crime and corruption flourishing in the region.
Mr Renard, with almost 20 years' service in the Nice magistrature, has not yet been charged, but the justice ministry has requested his temporary suspension from duty. The prosecutor's office wants a magistrate from outside the city to take charge of the unprecedented investigation. "There's too much at stake to risk this being swept under the carpet," said one lawyer involved in the case.
The allegations against Mr Renard concern his alleged illegal use of the secure database known as "Bulletin Number One" that is available to magistrates handling judicial dossiers. It contains material about criminal and civil convictions of French citizens. Mr Renard admits that he made 33 checks to help "vet" applicants for initiation into the Masonic lodge.
Mr de Montgolfier suspects that there were more and that the magistrate continued to raid the database after leaving the order. He joined the Grand National Lodge of France in 1991 and resigned early in 1998.
In a parallel case that raises troubling questions about the purpose of these alleged illicit searches, a Nice police officer who belongs to Mr Renard's former lodge has testified that he accessed the same restricted databank for information on President Jacques Chirac and Mr de Montgolfier.
One local journalist said: "God knows what the guy was looking for. But it's easy to imagine how material from the files might be used to blackmail a business competitor or compromise a political opponent."
Since being appointed two years ago, Mr de Montgolfier has courted controversy in his efforts to root out the culture of sleaze, influence-peddling and backroom deals that disfigured Nice under the notoriously corrupt former mayor, the late Jacques Medecin.
For 25 years, Medecin, who inherited the post from his father, ran the city as a personal fiefdom, surrounded by an entourage of crooked cronies and bent policemen, although - to Graham Greene's dismay - this failed to discourage voters from re-electing him on three occasions.
Mr de Montgolfier has been cultivating the media with revelations about numerous investigations from the Medecin era - some involving allegations of property fraud, influence peddling and paedophile activities - that magistrates shelved without satisfactory explanation. Earlier this month, he let it be known that he was re-examining cases which he had been assured by judicial insiders would never go for trial "because so-and-so is a Mason".
One involves an inquiry into the activities of a colourful character known as "Marcel La Salade" (so named for his market garden business). Another concerns corruption allegations against a former mayor of Cannes.
Mr de Montgolfier said last month that sensitive judicial dossiers were still going astray in the magistrature. He complained that he did not have the resources to get to grips with such problems. "Fighting organised crime with the means at my disposal is like trying to empty the sea with a bucket," he told Le Monde newspaper.
"It's even more difficult when you don't know who else you can count on. These days I never leave any documents lying around - everything goes into the safe." The decision to arrest Mr Renard outraged many fellow magistrates, lawyers and courtroom staff, who accuse the prosecutor's office of pursuing a vendetta against him.
After his release, about 100 people gathered to applaud him as he returned to the Palais de Justice. Before departing on a holiday brought forward from July, Mr Renard told them: "I've never tried to place myself above the law, but I do believe that I've been treated less fairly than an ordinary citizen."