How Connery’s wife could be jailed over a £5.5m fraud: A luxury villa in the sun, a ruthless Mafioso mayor – and a plot as colourful as any Bond film. DAVID JONES investigates
While the latest Bond movie, Spectre, brings glowing praise for Daniel Craig, life is running rather less smoothly for the prototype 007.
In truth, Sir Sean Connery’s personal story has never remotely resembled that of the unruffled agent he so consummately portrayed. Down the years, he has faced a plethora of damaging accusations, from hitting his first wife to deserting his beloved Scotland, supposedly to lower his income tax bill.
Then there’s the protracted and bitter legal dispute with an elderly eye doctor who co-owns a Manhattan townhouse with Connery’s son, Stephane, 55 — the actor’s retreat when he is in New York.
And now 85-year-old Connery is embroiled in another quarrel, this time in the Bahamas, where he is trying to enjoy a gentle retirement with his second wife, Micheline.
This spat is over a fashion tycoon’s plans to expand his estate, close to the Connerys’ home in the gated community of Lyford Cay. The Connerys have joined a local protest group claiming the development would desecrate the bay their villa overlooks. The actor first fell in love with it while shooting beach scenes for the 1965 Bond film Thunderball.
But these matters are trifling compared with the waking nightmare that has engulfed Sir Sean and Lady Connery this side of the Atlantic.
Spanish investigators have attempted to implicate the couple in a huge corruption scandal in Marbella, where they once spent long, glorious summers in another of their seaside villas.
The affair, which hinges on an alleged plot to defraud the Spanish treasury of almost £5.5 million, has been rumbling on for years. It has caused the Connerys to spend countless hours consulting with lawyers and could well ruin their retirement idyll.
Matters came to a head recently when Lady Connery, 84, was charged with involvement in tax fraud. If convicted, she could face a fine of more than £16 million, plus two-and-a-half years in jail, a sentence which would wrench the Connerys, whose inter-dependence is said to have grown in their twilight years, apart.
When actors get caught up in a real-life drama it is invariably said that the plotline seems straight out of a thriller. In this case, the cliché is all too true.
The villains of this particular scandal include a Mafioso mayor, corrupt cronies who lavished people who did them favours with thoroughbred horses, luxury cars and fine art, and a terrifying array of ruthless gangs.
While the story behind the great Costa property scam could have been scripted by Ian Fleming, this is not the reason Spanish prosecutors codenamed the investigation Goldfinger.
No, they named it after the 1964 Bond film because, until last year, when Sir Connery was finally cleared, they were intent on proving that he was somehow involved.
Why did the Spanish prosecutors hold him under suspicion?
It all dates back to 1970, when Connery, in his prime, and Micheline Roquebrune, an artist whose wild, auburn tresses matched her temperament, were thrust together while playing in a golf tournament in Morocco. Though he couldn’t speak French and she had only a few words of English, and both were married with children, they embarked on an affair. Within five years they had divorced their partners and married each other.
Marbella was then a far cry from the resort we know today, with its teeming fleshpots and wannabe celebrities.
A sleepy resort, it was the exclusive preserve of the jet set, a louche assortment of minor royals, fading sportsmen and old-school film stars. Not forgetting fabulously rich arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who moored his yacht at nearby Puerto Banus.
Connery became enamoured with its easy ambience. So, in 1975, he settled down there with Micheline, not least because they loved golfing together and several courses were springing up along the Costa del Sol.
The couple bought one of the prettiest villas: a secluded, white-washed gem with steps leading to the roof terrace, a private beach, a pool surrounded by exotic flowerbeds, vegetable gardens and citrus groves.
Its previous owner had been a Spanish film director, who had named it Casa Malibu after the Pacific paradise where he once lived.
For more than two decades, the Connerys spent several months there each year, usually from June to September, when they chased the sunshine to the Caribbean or California. They were famously generous hosts, inviting famous friends such as Richard Burton, Omar Sharif and George Best to stay. Lady Connery has said these were the most contented years of their lives.
In 1998, they decided to sell Casa Malibu and leave Marbella.
They’ve said that, with Marbella’s popularity rapidly growing, they tired of being gawped at by tourists. Local rumour had it that Micheline also grew tired of Sean’s womanising, and after one humiliating dalliance too many, she delivered an ultimatum — either they leave Spain, or she would leave him.
Devoted as he appeared to be to his wife, he is said to have taken several lovers during that period — among them the late singer Lynsey de Paul, who claims he began to seduce her at a party, as Micheline sat beside him.
There was, though, a third reported reason why they may have fallen out of love with Marbella.
Connery, it was said, put Casa Malibu on the market after a dispute with the then mayor of Marbella, Jesus Gil, with whom he was supposedly furious for granting planning permission for an ‘intrusive’ apartment block to be built near his hitherto secluded villa.
At the time, Gil — a former construction company tycoon who acquired vast wealth and influence during the dictatorship of General Franco — was a hugely influential figure who ran Marbella as his personal fiefdom.
After becoming president of Atletico Madrid football club, he used his popularity as a springboard to form his own Right-wing political party and made the resort his power base.
He swept into office in 1991 making two big promises. First, he would rid Marbella of the ‘whores, beggars and drug addicts’ then gravitating to the resort. Second, he pledged to initiate a massive building boom that would boost the region’s economy.
‘With the popularity I’ve got, I could be God!’ Gil proclaimed, and during the ensuing decade he behaved like one, handing out permits for developments like sweets, so long as he was rewarded with generous bribes.
Thus did the colourful mayor, a man who once addressed the nation on TV while surrounded by a dozen bikini-clad women in his Jacuzzi, create the ugly, over-developed ‘concrete Costa’ we now know.
In the process, Gil grew even richer, and diverted millions from the town hall’s coffers to his football club. Some fawning admirers still maintain he should be praised for turning Marbella into a well-known hedonist playground.
But he will be remembered as the most crooked town hall chief Spain has known, lining his own pockets and those of his henchmen, as well as paving the way for the influx of East European gangsters eager to cash in on his bent bonanza.
Eventually, Gil’s chicanery was uncovered and, 13 years ago, he was brought to book. He was banned from holding public office for 28 years and jailed, albeit briefly, before dying from a brain haemorrhage in 2004.
So how did our ennobled actor get tangled up with this rogue? As investigators widened their net they strove — some might say a mite too hard — to snare the Bond star who gave the inquiry its name (a choice later criticised by judge Alfredo Mondeja), and would have been their biggest catch. Their suspicions were roused by the sale of Casa Malibu and the sequence of events that followed.
The Connerys reportedly priced their villa at more than £7 million before off-loading it to anonymous Russian buyers a year later, in 1999, for £5.5 million. The Russians quickly sold the villa on to developers, making an eye-watering profit of almost £12 million.
It was then demolished and the plot was used to build more than 70 swish apartments, making the new owners an even bigger killing. The flats sold for a reputed £45 million.
The deal was one of many to be probed. As a result, next January, no fewer than 17 people will stand trial charged with offences including tax fraud and bribes.
They include Gil’s successor as mayor, Julian Munoz — who is already in prison — a crooked former town hall planner, and the Spanish lawyers who served Sir Sean and Lady Connery for decades.
Prosecutors working on Operation Goldfinger spent four years investigating the possibility that Connery participated in money-laundering and tax evasion. They eventually submitted 73 questions to him, forcing him to answer in a sworn affidavit, under threat of an international arrest warrant.
The Mail has seen a copy of his statement, which he submitted two years after receiving the 73 questions. In it, this intensely private man was quizzed about far more than his finances.
For example, when prosecutors discovered footage of Connery appearing in a promotional film for Gil’s political party, they attempted to cite this as ‘evidence’ of their apparent association.
Connery replied that he had neither willingly participated in the video nor permitted his appearance in it, and had taken legal action when he discovered his image had been used.
Investigating judge Alfredo Mondeja asked him who managed his ‘companies in the offshore havens of Panama, Uruguay and the Isle of Man’. Connery’s reply was terse: ‘I have no companies there.’
He was also forced to deny visiting the Marbella Property Register and handing out gifts to employees. Bizarrely, the judge even asked for his profession. ‘It is common knowledge that I was a film actor. I am now retired,’ wrote 007.
His affidavit, in which he protested his innocence, brought an end to the investigation — as far as Sir Sean was concerned, at least.
Though he was cleared, however, the judge suggested he might have deliberately delayed his reply to protect Lady Connery.
‘Perhaps it would lead one to think that the idea was to protect or hide the acts of participation of the actor’s wife,’ the judge remarked. His allegation proved portentous.
For charges have now been brought against Lady Connery, who, by the actor’s own admission, has taken control of their financial affairs in the past. She is accused of collaborating with businessmen and their former Spanish lawyers to ‘formalise fictitious legal transactions’ that enabled massive profits from the sale of Casa Malibu to be concealed from the taxman.
The alleged conspiracy is said to have been conducted via a Spanish company called By The Sea.
In one tax return, prosecutors claim, the company declared a ‘fictitious loss’ of more that £10 million when it actually earned around £18 million, and should have paid nearly £5.5 million in tax.
To cover this alleged liability, she will be ordered to hand about €10 million (£7 million) to the court, to be returned if she is acquitted. If she fails to comply, moves are likely to be made to freeze her assets.
For legal reasons, Lady Connery — who has submitted a separate affidavit, denying any wrongdoing and insisting she had nothing to do with By The Sea — will be tried separately from the other 17 defendants. Of course, this assumes that she will return to Spain and face what is likely to be a long, gruelling court hearing.
In declining to answer his own court summons in 2010, Connery cited his advanced age and ill-health. Whether his wife will take a similar course, facing the prospect of arrest the moment she sets foot outside the Bahamas, remains to be seen.
Whatever transpires, the couple are by all accounts handling this latest adversity with typical stoicism. They betray no sign of stress as they scoot around the island in a golf buggy, dine in local restaurants and entertain at their villa.
It remains to be seen whether the original 007 will retain his ice-cool façade if his adored wife is accused in court of being a real-life Mrs Goldfinger.