French police detain heiress' wealth manager, three others

15th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

French police investigating L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt on Thursday detained her wealth manager and three others, the latest twist in a case rocking President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

Financial advisor Patrice de Maistre and celebrity photographer Francois-Marie Banier were formally detained for questioning at the Paris office of the financial crimes unit, a judicial source told AFP.

Bettencourt's former tax lawyer, Fabrice Goguel, was also held along with Carlos Vejarano, the manager of the Arros island in the Seychelles, which Bettencourt allegedly owns and used as a tax haven.

Police have opened three investigations involving Bettencourt, France's richest woman, following allegations of tax evasion and of illegal donations to Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

The multi-layered scandal exploded last month when an investigative website released transcripts of conversations between Bettencourt and De Maistre that were secretly recorded by the billionairess' butler.

The tapes reportedly revealed that Bettencourt plotted to evade taxes, hiding some 80 million euros in Swiss bank accounts while giving big donations to friends in Sarkozy's ruling UMP party.

The four men were expected to be held for 48 hours, after which police must decide whether to press charges.

Police searched the homes and offices of several people linked to Bettencourt on Monday, including the Paris apartment of Banier, who is accused by Bettencourt's daughter of taking advantage of her mother's frailty.

Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers has asked a judge to declare her mother incompetent to manage her 17-billion-euro (20-billion-dollar) fortune after she showered Banier with gifts worth close to one billion euros.

"This is an important step because for months we have been saying that Liliane Bettencourt is surrounded by predators," said lawyer Olivier Metzner, representing the daughter.

"We consider that she is not acting responsibly because she is being steered in a direction," said Metzner, who accused Bettencourt's entourage of "taking her money."

The 87-year-old Bettencourt is the sole heir to the L'Oreal cosmetics empire comprising such global brands as Lancome and Maybelline. She ranks 17th on the Forbes list of the world's richest people.

The scandal drew in Sarkozy after Bettencourt's former accountant, Claire Thibout, told police the billionairess had contributed 150,000 euros to his campaign in 2007 through his fundraiser, current Labour Minister Eric Woerth.

Woerth has strenuously denied the allegations and Sarkozy has suggested they are part of a smear campaign.

But a former butler of the Bettencourts and a former secretary have both confirmed to police the accountant's statement regarding cash-filled envelopes prepared for politicians, Le Monde reported Thursday.

Neither however could say they had actually seen money change hands.

It was the butler, Pascal Bonnefoy, who made the illegal recordings of the conversations at the centre of the controversy.

In a television interview on Wednesday, the usually camera-shy Bettencourt said she had ordered an independent audit of her companies to show she was capable of running her affairs.

And her lawyer, Georges Kiejman, confirmed a report in Liberation Thursday that she had already signed a "future protection order" giving de Maistre sole authorisation to handle her assets should she be declared incompetent.

The scandal comes at a delicate time for Sarkozy who is struggling with record-low approval ratings and seeking to push through an overhaul of the pensions system in the face of strong union opposition.

Woerth, the architect of the pensions reform bill, has been under constant fire for weeks after it emerged that his wife worked for a firm managing Bettencourt's wealth.

Florence Woerth has since quit her job while Woerth also resigned as party fundraiser, but Sarkozy has insisted that he will stay on as labour minister.

© 2010 AFP

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