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‘Earthquake’ corruption charge rocks World Rugby

French rugby federation president Bernard Laporte has been handed a two-year suspended sentence in a corruption case also involving a billionaire club owner, just nine months before the World Cup kicks off in France.

Laporte, who is also World Rugby’s vice-chairman, was found guilty of passive corruption, influence peddling, illegal interest taking and misuse of corporate assets by a court in Paris.

Laporte was banned from holding any position in rugby for two years but his lawyer Jean-Pierre Versini-Campinchi said he would appeal the ruling, meaning the former France coach and sports minister can keep his top job at the federation in the meantime.

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Florian Grill, who ran against Laporte for the French federation presidency two years ago, urged members of the federation’s board of directors to resign collectively and called for new elections.

“This conviction is an earthquake for the French rugby world,” Grill said.

World Rugby is reportedly set to hold a crisis meeting following the charge.

Although Laporte will keep his job in the interim as the French Rugby Federation president, his place as the World Rugby vice-chairman may be untenable.

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“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,” a statement from the governing body read.

“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.

“World Rugby will not be making further comment until the conclusion of the independent process.”

French sports minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra said Laporte should benefit from the presumption of innocence until a final ruling is reached, but she insisted that his sentencing put him in an untenable situation and called on the French federation to act.

“In terms of good governance, the minister considers that this new context is an obstacle to Bernard Laporte being able, as it stands, to continue his mission under good conditions at the head of a Federation… in such a decisive time for French rugby, in the final stretch before a Rugby World Cup when France will be hosting nations from all over the world,” the sports ministry said in a statement.

Mohed Altrad, the owner and president of Montpellier rugby club, was found guilty of active corruption, influence peddling, and misuse of corporate assets, L’Equipe newspaper reported. He was handed an 18-month suspended prison sentence, as well as a 50,000-euro ($53,000) fine, the newspaper said.

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In 2017, Laporte was the subject of an investigation into an alleged conflict of interests and denied accusations that he pressured the French federation’s appeals board to reduce sanctions against Top 14 club Montpellier.

Following a three-month investigation, the French sports ministry said Laporte contacted the appeal commission’s president and stressed that the phone call resulted in commission members changing their decision.

That meant Montpellier’s fine of 70,000 euros was reduced to 20,000 euros and a one-game stadium ban was canceled after Laporte’s intercession.

Altrad, a Syrian-born French billionaire and a close friend of Laporte, sealed a partnership with the French federation to become the first shirt sponsor of the Tricolors in 2018.

The French federation said at the time its ethical committee judged that the sponsorship deal did not cause a conflict of interest. The Altrad group was the sole bidder.

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