March 17 (Bloomberg) -- Jerome Kerviel’s quixotic quest for redemption has won him at least one convert.
Filippo Falugiani had never heard of the former Societe Generale SA trader or that he’d been convicted for losing 4.9 billion euros ($6.9 billion) at the French bank six years ago. Yet after Kerviel stayed a night in one of the rooms the Falugiani family rents above their restaurant in Tuscany, 36-year-old Filippo is convinced the French justice system has got it wrong.
“He impressed me with how serious and friendly he is,” Falugiani said in Bargino, a village where the last vineyards of the Chianti region start to give way to the suburbs of Florence, 22 kilometers (13 miles) to the north. “I can’t believe he can be solely responsible for the loss.”
Kerviel may not be able to sway French judges as easily. The 37-year-old is walking 1,400 kilometers from Rome to Paris after seeing Pope Francis on Feb. 19 while France’s highest appeals courts considers his bid to overturn two rulings holding him solely responsible for the 2008 trading loss, among the biggest in banking history. A rejection of his appeal by the court on March 19 will send Kerviel to prison for three years. If he wins, a new trial will be held.
Kerviel has argued in every trial, and again during an interview along a six-kilometer stretch of road through forests, vineyards and auto repair shops from Bargino to San Casciano in Val di Pesa, that Societe Generale stealthily sold sub-prime mortgage investments as it liquidated his positions. Sporting a beard and a tan, and with his three-packs-a-day habit down to less than one pack of Marlboro’s, Kerviel sounded incredulous.
“When I first saw my face on a TV screen with a 5 billion-euro loss attached, I had no idea what they were talking about,” he said. “I still don’t.”
While he admits to exceeding trading limits, faking documents and entering false data into computers, Kerviel says his superiors turned a blind eye as long as his transactions made money.
In both a 2010 trial and a 2012 appeal, judges didn’t accept Kerviel’s version of events. In France, the initial appeal is almost always a retrial, with the judges hearing the case essentially from scratch.
The March 19 decision will be from the Cour de Cassation, which considers legal issues involved in the decision. Kerviel’s defense team has argued at the Cour de Cassation that prosecutors never did a detailed study of how Societe Generale sold off the positions.
Jean Veil, a lawyer for Paris-based bank, said he had no comment on Kerviel’s walk from Rome. As for claims that Societe Generale hid other losses while unwinding Kerviel’s positions, the bank has always dismissed the charge.
Christopher Mesnooh, an American lawyer practicing in Paris, said Kerviel’s walk won’t influence the court’s decision.
“Going spiritual, if that’s what this is about, might humanize him, but that level of court is unlikely to be swayed either way by this sort of activity,” he said.
Kerviel said his trek is aimed neither at gaining publicity and sympathy nor at keeping himself out of jail.
“I didn’t ask journalists to cover me, they contacted me,” he said. “I’m not trying to manipulate the justice system.”
Two French television stations, Canal Plus and BFM, have run extended reports on him from Italy. The Facebook page of his walk has 2,500 “likes” and several dozens of supportive comments each day.
“Whatever the decision of the court on March 19, Jerome Kerviel will not stop walking,” his lawyer David Koubbi said in an interview. “He will be at the disposal of justice wherever he will be then.”
Kerviel says his walk is a personal journey that’s aimed at publicizing Pope Francis’s November attack on the “tyranny” of financial markets. The Pope has criticized modern capitalism for its “idolatry of money.”
“I was both a participant and a victim of the system he denounced,” Kerviel said. “His message spoke to me.”
He won’t say what was discussed privately with the Pope after he attended the regular Wednesday audience.
“That’s between me, my lawyer and the Holy Father,” said Kerviel, who described himself as believer, but a non-practicing Catholic.
He said that as long as he’s walking, he’s not thinking about the prospect of spending the next three years in jail.
“I thought about it every day for six years but since I started the walk I haven’t thought about it once,” he said.
He covers 15 to 30 kilometers a day. A friend in Paris charts his route and reserves rooms in homes or cheap hotels. His expenses have averaged about 40 euros a day, all of it lent by friends.
Kerviel left his job at a computer consulting firm in 2010 to focus on his appeal. The French courts have ordered him to pay back the 4.9 billion-euro loss, although Societe Generale has indicated it doesn’t expect to collect that amount.
In Italy, where media don’t have to look abroad for financial scandals to report on, few people have heard of him, though religious convents have put him up for the night. If he makes it to Paris without being carted off to jail, he said 400 people have already offered their homes.
While it snowed in the mountains of southern Tuscany, the weather turned spring-like in the second week of his walk.
Because he uses GPS to guide his route, he mostly walks alongside traffic, despite Italy’s dense network of country lanes. Once near Siena, the GPS put him on the “autostrada,” or highway, for six kilometers.
He said the French-speaking Carabinieri who stopped him were so amused by his tale of losing billions at a bank they let him off without a fine.
Kerviel -- a native of Brittany who rose through the ranks to Societe Generale’s trading floor without having attended any of France’s elite schools -- became something of a cult hero in the country in the aftermath of the 2008 loss.
There was a comic book, fan clubs and t-shirts supporting his cause. A poll taken after news of the loss broke showed 77 percent of French respondents saw him as a “victim.”
Kerviel would be long out of jail and free to pursue his life had he accepted his sentence of three years in prison. He says he has no regrets about fighting to clear his name.
He says he’s not on the run from justice, and he won’t hide if he loses his final appeal.
“I won’t take the train back to Paris, but I won’t resist if Italian authorities come for me,” Kerviel said. “I just hope I’m allowed to finish what I’ve started.”
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