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Did game-show referee cheat?

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Just before Henri-Desire Landru, a convicted murderer, was sent to the guillotine at Versailles prison in 1922, what was his final request: 1) a haircut, 2) a toothpick or 3) a foot bath?

A team of contestants on the popular French game show "Intervilles" correctly answered "three," but were they prompted by the show's referee?Grainy photos of the referee holding three fingers on his thigh appear to indicate the answer is yes.

The scandal over referee Olivier Chiabodo's apparent trickery has shaken France's leading television network and set off a storm of legal finger-pointing.

The question of the murderer's final request came on July 2 when contestants from the town of Puy-du-Fou beat a team from Ancenis, then went on to win the championship this month - for the second year in a row.

The final competition of the game show, in which teams run grueling obstacle courses, dodge cows and perform other stunts, drew 7 million viewers to the TF1 network.

Then last week, a muckraking newspaper, the Canard Enchaine, reported that Chiabodo had prompted the Puy-du-Fou team.

On Friday, the Le Parisien newspaper ran grainy front-page pictures showing what it said was Chiabodo signaling the Puy-du-Fou team in July and during another show last year. In both cases, the team responded by saying only the number of the choice.

Newspapers suggest Chiabodo favored Puy-du-Fou because of his close ties to Philippe de Villiers, the political chief of the Vendee region where the town is located.

TF1 fired Chiabodo and filed a lawsuit against him. The town of Puy-du-Fou has filed suit against the Canard alleging defamation, and Pont Saint Esprit, the town that lost in the finals last year, also is suing Chiabodo.

The mayor of Pont Saint Esprit, Gilbert Baumet, accused the referee of sabotaging his town's contestants.

"The captain of our team told me during the contest that Chiabodo kept trying to put us off balance, saying things like: `You guys are lousy,' " Baumet told the newspaper Liberation.

Chiabodo has denied the accusations.

The scandal also has shaken TF1 management, the Canard reported Wednesday. The network president, Patrick Le Lay, angrily fired Chiabodo after reviewing the show, it said, and may take programming power away from Etienne Mougeotte.

"Intervilles" producer Gerard Louvin, the director of variety shows at TF1 and head of a production company that supplies shows to the network, could also be in trouble, it said.

The furor is reminiscent of the scandal that hit the U.S. television game show "21" in the 1950s. Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University instructor from a distinguished academic family, fell from grace after admitting he had been given answers in advance. The movie "Quiz Show" was made that was based on the scandal.