French minister Woerth questioned in L'Oreal probe

29th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

French police questioned a cabinet minister for eight hours on Thursday as they probed claims France's richest woman illegally bankrolled President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

Detectives arrived early at Labour Minister Eric Woerth's offices as part of inquiries into various financial scandals surrounding L'Oreal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt's multi-billion-euro fortune.

They left nearly eight hours later, after interviewing the minister as a witness, ministry officials said.

The minister had previously said he wanted to speak to police to clear his name over allegations that damaged Sarkozy's bid to push through unpopular pension reforms and Woerth's hopes of becoming prime minister.

The prosecutors' office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, which oversees the investigations into 87-year-old Bettencourt, said beforehand that Woerth "would be questioned on all the elements which interest investigators."

An investigation was launched after secretly recorded tapes appeared to reveal a conversation between Bettencourt and a business adviser in which they allegedly discussed means of avoiding French tax.

Woerth's name also came up in the recording, during which the cosmetics billionaire appears to sign cheques for political donations, but the minister has firmly denied any conflict of interest.

Before taking up the work and pensions portfolio, Woerth was budget minister and in charge of chasing down wealthy tax evaders.

He is also treasurer of Sarkozy's ruling UMP party and, as its chief fundraiser, has spent time with many of the country's richest individuals to convince them to fund its political campaigns.

With a fortune estimated at 17 billion euros (22 billion dollars), Bettencourt is France's richest woman. Staff have told police that she and her late husband donated generously to right-wing candidates.

Earlier this year, tapes recorded by her butler were leaked to the media and prosecutors, in which Bettencourt and her chief financial adviser Patrick de Maistre discuss her affairs and his ties to Woerth.

As the scandal erupted, Claire Thibout, a former Bettencourt accountant, told police that Bettencourt had made illegal cash donations to Woerth and to Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

Woerth and Sarkozy both firmly deny this, but overlapping investigations have been launched into what has been dubbed the "Woerth-Bettencourt affair."

Police want to know whether -- as Thibout alleges -- De Maistre gave Woerth 150,000 euros in cash in early 2007 for Sarkozy's campaign. In France, individual campaign donations are capped at 7,500 euros.

De Maistre calls this charge "ridiculous". His lawyer says that De Maistre did meet Woerth on the day in question but gave no money. Woerth has lodged a police complaint of "malicious falsehood" over the allegation.

Investigators are also probing an alleged conflict of interest surrounding Woerth's wife Florence, who formerly worked for De Maistre's firm and was involved in managing Bettencourt's fortune.

In the secret tapes, De Maistre appears to suggest he hired Florence Woerth as a favour to her husband. The minister's wife has since resigned from the firm, but Woerth insists he did not push De Maistre to hire her.

The minister has said he will step down as UMP treasurer, but has refused to resign as minister, insists he has done nothing wrong and has vowed to continue to battle to push through a key pension reform package.

© 2010 AFP

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