French police question Bettencourt finance advisor

30th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

French police detained the financial advisor of L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for questioning Friday, officials said, in a probe that has embarrassed President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

The financial crimes squad detained the advisor, Patrice de Maistre, for five hours as part of a probe of Bettencourt's finances that has implicated Labour Minister Eric Woerth, a key member of Sarkozy's administration.

Woerth was questioned by police on Thursday and has denied any wrongdoing in the scandals linked to the fortune of Bettencourt, who is the billionaire heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics empire and France's richest woman.

Judicial sources said Friday that Maistre would be asked to respond to Woerth's testimony as well as to allegations that he had handled illegal payments to Sarkozy's presidential election campaign.

Maistre's lawyer Pascal Wilhelm said that Maistre had been questioned and released without charge. Prosecutors confirmed this.

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.

Maistre's fresh questioning would focus partly on the contents of these recordings, said the judicial sources, who asked not to be named.

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

"With particular vigour and energy, he denied receiving any political financing that was not in conformity with the law," Woerth's lawyer Jean-Yves Leborgne told reporters after the minister's eight-hour grilling on Thursday.

Woerth also denied accusations of a conflict of interest that arose with the news that his wife worked for Maistre's firm managing Bettencourt's estate while he was budget minister tasked with policing tax evasion.

© 2010 AFP

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