Police to question billionaire L'Oreal heiress

24th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Police will question a government minister and France's richest woman next week as what began as a simple lawsuit involving L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt threatens to become an affair of state.

Officers from the financial police will interview Bettencourt as part of an inquiry sparked by a long-running legal case brought by her own daughter, her entourage said Saturday.

Police will also interview Labour Minister Eric Woerth, a former treasurer of Sarkozy's political party, who has vehemently denied suggestions that he received illegal cash donations from Bettencourt.

Bettencourt will meet police at her home following the request made by the prosecutor's office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, a member of her entourage told AFP Saturday.

Currently on holiday in Spain, Bettencourt will return "at the start of the week and will be questioned by finance police, probably at her home" in the the well-to-do Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Her daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Myers, has initiated legal action claiming that her 87-year-old mother is no longer mentally competent to manage her fortune, which is estimated at 16 billion euros (20-billion-dollars).

She says her mother is being manipulated by the people around her.

In particular, she accuses society photographer Francois-Marie Banier of using undue influence to get her mother to give him paintings, money and insurance policies worth nearly one billion euros (1.29 billion dollars)

"He arrived in my family as a bit of a clown, then he transformed himself into a confidant," she told investigators on Tuesday, according to media reports.

"Then the confidant transformed himself into Rasputin."

The elder Bettencourt -- whose father founded L'Oreal, the world's biggest beauty and cosmetics company -- denies she was manipulated, and has denounced what she says is her daughter's impatience to get her hands on her fortune.

On Thursday, a French prosecutor rejected a request by her daughter to place Bettencourt under legal guardianship.

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

French press reports Saturday pointed to circumstantial evidence that appeared to corroborate claims by the Bettencourts' former accountant Claire Thibout that the billionairess was making illegal cash payments to politicians.

Entries in the diaries of both Thibout and of Bettencourt's current financial adviser, Patrice de Maistre, appear to suggest that de Maistre had a January 2007 meeting with Woerth.

Thibout has told investigators that Woerth received 150,000 euros in cash in the spring of 2007 to finance Nicolas Sarkozy's run for the presidency.

© 2010 AFP

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