French minister denies wrongdoing in police L'Oreal grilling

29th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

France's embattled labour minister denied all wrongdoing Thursday during a marathon grilling by police on financial scandals surrounding the L'Oreal cosmetics heiress, his lawyer said.

"With particular vigour and energy, he denied receiving any political financing that was not in conformity with the law," Jean-Yves Leborgne told reporters after Eric Woerth was questioned for eight hours at his ministry.

Woerth, who has repeatedly protected his innocence in an affair that has dogged President Nicolas Sarkozy's government for weeks, also denied lobbying to get his wife hired by a firm managing the L'Oreal heiress's money.

The minister had earlier said he wanted to talk to the police to clear the air, and early on Thursday detectives turned up at the labour ministry to question him as a witness. Police made no comment after the interview.

The most politically dangerous allegation in the complicated controversy is that 87-year-old L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman, illegally bankrolled Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

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 was 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 sent to the media and prosecutors, in which Bettencourt and her chief financial adviser Patrick de Maistre discuss her affairs and his ties to Woerth.

After 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 wanted 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 has repeatedly insisted 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

0 Comments To This Article