On May 20, 1986, a helicopter falls vertically on the Côte d’Azur. Inside the device, which covered the route between Cannes and Nice according to the chronicles of the time, four people travel, who are submerged for hours under the water of the Mediterranean: among them, the Basque industrialist José María Aristrain Noain, 69 years old , one of the great fortunes of Spain. The head of an empire that emerged in 1955 with the creation of the JM Aristrain SA foundry, which in the mid-eighties had a turnover of 50,000 million pesetas a year (300 million euros at the current exchange rate) and that, only two months after the tragedy , was already directed by his son José María Aristrain de la Cruz. The heir, who had also lost his mother before, was just 24 years old when his life took a major turn.
The young man decided to continue with his father’s career, which not only marked his childhood and adolescence, but still continues to influence him, according to sources from his closest environment. Many of the decisions of this discreet businessman, who is hardly seen in public and lives obsessed with security, are only understood, say these sources, through the prism of the memory of Aristrain Noain, an industrialist who made his fortune during the Franco regime – the Legend has it that he began collecting scrap metal on the banks of the Oria River – and that he always had a reputation for refusing to pay the “revolutionary tax” in the hardest years of ETA terrorism, forcing him to hire an escort for himself and his family. “The Aristrains do not admit any blackmail”, they say in their environment when asked about that time or why they do not choose now to agree with the Prosecutor’s Office in the trial that faces in the Provincial Court of Madrid for one of the alleged major tax fraud from the recent history of the country: “It would be like admitting to your father that you are guilty.”
Since last October 20 and after two years of postponements, Aristrain Jr., also baptized as The steel magnate, sits on the bench. The oral hearing ended this Friday after half a dozen sessions that have gutted the businessman’s personal finances, whom the magazine Forbes attributed this 2021 a patrimony of 950 million euros and which places it in the 27th place of the largest fortunes in Spain. “It is believed that it now owns a 2% stake in ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel company. [y con sede en Luxemburgo]”, Reads the publication. According to the National Securities Market Commission (CNMV), it also owns 11% of Tubacex, the world’s second largest producer of seamless tubes in stainless steels.
The Prosecutor’s Office believes that the industrialist designed a complex corporate structure to avoid paying taxes in Spain for the profits he obtained from his businesses between 2005 and 2009, while also pretending to live in Switzerland. “[No pagó] neither for the Personal Income Tax (IRPF), nor for the Wealth Tax, nor for the dividends and capital gains obtained by the companies controlled by it ”, highlights the public prosecutor in its provisional indictment, where he estimated the fraud at 211 million euros and asked for a 64-year prison sentence and a fine of 1,190 million. Some calculations that, as soon as the trial began, were already reduced because the magistrates declared several indictments prescribed, for which 24 years in prison and a 410 million fine were requested. And, according to Efe, the Prosecutor’s Office has finally requested 52 years in prison this Friday and a penalty of 185 million euros for the rest of the crimes. But does the employer admit them?
“I cannot declare myself an author at all,” Aristrain said in court on October 21, before availing himself of his right not to testify.
These are the few words that the tycoon has spoken in public since the case exploded. However, sources in his environment agree to speak for EL PAÍS and defend his innocence. They insist that he actually moved to Switzerland and paid taxes where he was supposed to: “We are right and he is tired. This whole process has done him a lot of damage and has deteriorated his health ”. In 2019, when the trial was to be held for the first time, he went to the Hearing in a wheelchair. This October, he did it on crutches.
In addition, if before the investigation he was already an elusive man, since then his distrust has multiplied. His environment explains that he leaves the house little, although he has never lavished much on acts and has avoided political and power circles. These sources detail that he has always been obsessed with security – an inheritance also from his father, whose death the French press speculated was an attack. He has lived for years in fear that ETA would kidnap him. In fact, there are hardly any images of the tycoon in the media and his face is unknown to the general public. “He was very cold in the deal,” says one of his former managers. “He is very reserved,” says one of the people who deals with him, adding that, to make matters worse, he has felt betrayed in recent years by one of his closest collaborators, Dámaso Quintana, whom he placed in charge of some of his companies and whom he has denounced for unfair administration.
The crossed versions have become the axis of the judicial battle. And, in one of the days of the oral hearing, sitting in the shape of a half circle, eight experts prepare to show it again in court: on one side, four from the Tax Agency and the National Fraud Investigation Office ( ONIF) proposed by the State Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office; to the other, four paid by Aristrain. They all reel off the life of the family for hours: their collection of “luxury vehicles”; its “dozens or hundreds of properties in Spain: homes, country estates, ranches …”; their telephone bills, electricity, doctors, dentists, children’s schools …
The former try to show that he really lived in Spain. “When we went to search his home, practically his entire family was there (his current wife and almost all his children), in addition to the bodyguards and housemaids,” explains one of the tax experts: “It was a house where they lived . There were their rooms, their clothes, their computers, their everyday objects. There was a food pantry, ”he describes. The defense assures, however, that they were just making a stopover in Madrid for a trip.
According to the Tax Agency expert, they also intervened on Aristrain’s agenda, in which he noted where he spent each day, “to find out how many escorts he needed”; a book in which he wrote down the correspondence he received and where; and documents with “all the transactions and transfer orders that he made personally”. “All this shows that his main center of interests was in Madrid.”
The Basque industrial technicians conclude just the opposite: “Aristrain’s residence in Switzerland is so real and effective that the Swiss authorities analyzed the entire documentary and came to the conclusion that he resides there.” One remembers that the Swiss country has issued him a “certificate” where he admits the same. “At his home in Switzerland there is electricity, gas and electricity consumption. Take out home and accident insurance. 1.5 million euros are spent on works. He bought a car in 2006. The only mobile phone that was seized from Aristrain was Swiss. An extract from a Swiss card shows expenses almost every month in 2006 ”, summarizes another of his experts. To all this, the Treasury technicians respond: “All these expenses were very few, to a minimum, [en comparación con los de España]”.
The environment of the tycoon hopes to be victorious. If not, he admits, the different scenarios that would open up to have a “plan b, cod” have already been analyzed. Once the trial is over, the floor will be held by the three judges of the Provincial Court who will pass judgment. While he arrives, according to sources in his closest circle, Aristrain “continues” to live in Switzerland.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.