Police step up Sarkozy illegal funding probe

9th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Police on Friday searched the home and office of a financial adviser to France's richest woman as part of a probe into alleged illegal donations to President Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign, officials said.

The search of Patrice de Maistre's residence and firm came a day after police questioned the ex-accountant to Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics empire, about her allegations of cash gifts to Sarkozy.

Prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into claims by the accountant of a 150,000-euro (190,000-dollar) donation from Bettencourt given to Eric Woerth, Sarkozy's campaign fundraiser in 2007 who is now labour minister.

The scandal is the latest blow to Sarkozy, whose approval ratings are at an all-time low and who is battling to save Woerth over conflict of interest allegations linked to the 87-year-old billionaire.

The architect of pension reform, Woerth is to present a bill to cabinet next week that will raise the legal retirement age and push through a centerpiece of Sarkozy's agenda as he heads for a re-election fight in 2012.

Woerth has strenuously denied taking any illegal donations from Bettencourt and Sarkozy has dismissed the claims as a smear campaign, but the scandal has sparked calls for the high-profile minister to resign.

The accountant, Claire Thibout, told police during three hours of questioning on Thursday that the financial adviser had asked her "before the presidential election to go pick up 150,000 euros at the bank" according to a transcript obtained by the Mediapart website.

"When I asked him what the money was for, he said that he had a dinner planned with Mr Woerth to give it to him," she said.

But Thibout denied a report in Mediapart that Sarkozy was a regular visitor at Bettencourt's villa in the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly when he was mayor of the town and that he often received cash envelopes.

"I never said that envelopes were regularly passsed on to Mr Sarkozy," she said.

The Elysee presidential palace pounced on that partial retraction as proof that her account was dodgy.

"The truth has been restored," said Sarkozy's chief of staff Claude Gueant.

For his part, De Maistre denied any knowledge of the cash donation.

"I have no knowledge of the alleged existence of this handover of 150,000 euros," he told police during questioning on Tuesday, Le Monde newspaper reported.

In France private donors are forbidden from giving more than 7,500 euros per year to a political party and there are strict limits on how much can be raised in cash.

The mushrooming affair started with a report from the Mediapart website on conversations secretly recorded by Bettencourt's butler which revealed that the L'Oreal heiress plotted to evade taxes.

Woerth has been accused of a conflict of interest since his wife worked as a wealth manager for Bettencourt's 17-billion-euro fortune while he was budget minister tasked with fighting tax dodgers.

© 2010 AFP

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