French police free Bettencourt associates in finance probe

16th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

French police released four associates of France's richest woman Friday after questioning them as part of a probe into a tax scandal that has rocked the government.

Investigators probing the affairs of L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt had detained her financial advisor Patrice de Maistre and celebrity photographer Francois-Marie Banier since Thursday.

Judges also questioned Bettencourt's former tax lawyer Fabrice Goguel and Carlos Vejarano, manager of a Seychelles island, which Bettencourt allegedly owns and used as a tax haven.

They were released after approximately 36 hours: 12 hours short of the 48 hours they could have held them before deciding whether to press charges.

De Maistre has been accused in media reports based on secretly recorded conversations of overseeing a bid to evade French tax.

Bettencourt's daughter accuses Banier of using his influence over her mother to obtain nearly a billion euros in gifts.

There was no indication from investigators as to whether any charges would be laid against anyone.

Banier and Vejarano were seen driving away in separate cars from the offices of the financial police in Paris.

Police have opened three investigations involving Bettencourt, following allegations of tax evasion and of illegal donations to President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign -- charges that all parties have denied.

Earlier Friday, former investigating magistrate Eva Joly, now a European deputy with Europe Ecologie, called for the prosecutor handling the case to upgrade the probe by assigning an investigating magistrate.

"The investigation cannot go anywhere in its current procedural format," she warned in an interview with Europe 1 radio.

The questions that needed answering required the powers of an investigating magistrate, the only official with the power to formally request information abroad, she said.

© 2010 AFP

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