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Verdict expected in ex-French prime minister's trial

Last Updated Jun 29, 2020 at 7:38 am EDT

FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2020 file photo, France's former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, left, and his wife Penelope, arrive at the Paris courthouse, in Paris. A Paris court is set to render or postpone a verdict on the case of former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who faced a trial on fraud charges after he used public funds to pay his wife and children for work they allegedly never performed. Fillon and his wife have denied any wrongdoing. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

PARIS — A Paris court is set to give — or may postpone — a verdict in the fraud trial of former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon on Monday.

Fillon was accused of using public funds to pay his wife and children for work they allegedly never performed. Fillon and his wife have denied any wrongdoing.

A last-minute request from Fillon’s lawyers casts uncertainty over whether the verdict will be announced as scheduled on Monday afternoon.

The move came after the former head of France’s financial prosecutors, Eliane Houlette, said earlier this month that she had come under pressure over her handling of the case, in reference to close supervision by her superiors.

In France, prosecutors report to the justice minister. Houlette didn’t call into question the prosecutors’ work and conclusions.

Fillon’s lawyers asked for the postponement of the verdict so that the issue can be debated in court.

The scandal broke in the French media just three months before the country’s 2017 presidential election, as Fillon was the front-runner in the race. It cost him his reputation. Fillon sunk to third place in the election, which was won by Emmanuel Macron.

Penelope Fillon’s role alongside her husband drew all the attention during the February-March trial, which focused on determining whether her activities were in the traditional role of an elected official’s partner — or involved actual paid work.

Prosecutors denounced “fraudulent, systematic practices” and requested five years in prison, including a three-year suspended sentence, and a 375,000 euro (more than $415,000) fine against Francois Fillon, and a three-year suspended sentence and the same fine against his wife.

Fillon has been charged with misuse of public funds, receiving money from the misuse of public funds and the misappropriation of company assets. His wife has been charged mostly as an accomplice.

Her work brought the family more than 1 million euros ($1.08 million) since 1998. Her previous jobs were subject to the statute of limitations.

During the trial, Penelope Fillon explained how she decided to support her husband’s career when he was first elected as a French lawmaker in 1981 in the small town of Sable-sur-Sarthe, in rural western France.

Over the years, she was offered different types of contracts as a parliamentary assistant, depending on her husband’s political career.

She detailed her work, saying she mostly wrote reports about local issues, opened the mail, met with residents and helped to prepare speeches for local events. She said working that way allowed her to have a flexible schedule and raise their five children in the Fillons’ countryside manor. She said her husband was the one who decided the details of her contracts.

Prosecutors pointed at the lack of actual evidence of her work, including the absence of declarations for any paid vacations or maternity leave, as her wages reached up to nine times France’s minimum salary.

Prosecutor Aurelien Letocart argued that “meeting with voters, getting the children from school, going shopping or reading mail isn’t intended to be paid work.”

Letocart said Fillon “had a deep feeling of impunity, the certainty that his status would dissuade anyone from suing him … This gets cynical when that attitude comes from a man who made probity his trademark.”

Francois Fillon insisted his wife’s job was real and said that, according to the separation of powers, the justice system can’t interfere with how a lawmaker organizes work at his office.

Fillon’s lawyer, Antonin Levy, said “there’s no doubt that Penelope has assisted her husband. The quality of her work and the quantity, this is not the debate.”

In addition, charges also cover a contract that allowed Penelope Fillon to earn 135.000 euros in 2012-2013 as a consultant for a literary magazine owned by a friend of her husband — also an alleged fake job. The magazine owner, Marc de Lacharriere, already pleaded guilty and was given a suspended eight-month prison sentence and fined 375,000 euros in 2018.

If the Fillons were to be found guilty, the National Assembly, which joined the proceedings as a civil plaintiff, would ask for a total penalty of 1.081 million euros that correspond to the salaries and payroll charges that were paid.

Fillon, once the youngest lawmaker at the National Assembly at the age of 27, served as prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012. He was also a minister under two previous presidents, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.

He left French politics in 2017 and now works for an asset management company.

Sylvie Corbet And Nicolas Vaux-Montagny, The Associated Press