Sarkozy's best man charged in kickback probe

22nd September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Fresh sleaze claims hit French President Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election hopes Thursday when the best man at his wedding was charged with graft by judges probing alleged kickbacks on an arms deal.

Just seven months before the French leader is to go to the country to seek another five-year mandate, Nicolas Bazire became the latest in a string of close allies to be confronted by a criminal investigation.

Allegations that a 1995 presidential campaign by Sarkozy's mentor Edouard Balladur was funded through a Pakistani submarine contract follow claims members of the president's party received brown envelopes from an heiress.

Sarkozy's camp could also find itself implicated in allegations that a rival centre-right group supporting his predecessor as French leader Jacques Chirac received suitcases of cash from African leaders.

Bazire, a businessman and former government official who was best man at Sarkozy's wedding to supermodel Carla Bruni in February 2008, was detained on Wednesday and questioned overnight before being charged.

Bazire's lawyer, Jean-Yves Lienard, said that during questioning and prior to his release on bail his client affirmed his "total lack of involvement" in the matter and branded witness claims to the contrary "fantasist".

Another Sarkozy ally, Thierry Gaubert, was charged on Wednesday as part of the probe into the Pakistani deal. Both men are now subject to judicial probes into "misuse of public funds" and could face trial, judicial sources said.

Prosecutors suspect middlemen paid huge kickbacks on the Pakistani contract to former prime minister Balladur's 1995 presidential campaign, for which the then budget minister Sarkozy served as chief spokesman.

Bazire, 54, was Balladur's one time chief of staff and campaign manager. Gaubert worked for Sarkozy when he was mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly and was his communications adviser as minister.

Witnesses have told investigators Bazire had a large safe stuffed with cash during the 1995 campaign. He is now a member of the board of luxury goods giant LVMH, whose shares dropped 6.1 percent Thursday in a falling market.

Controversy over the arms contract erupted when investigators began probing whether a 2002 bomb attack in Karachi that killed 11 French engineers working on the project was a revenge attack for promised bribes not paid.

Balladur's presidential bid was defeated by Chirac, who, on coming to office, cancelled payments to middlemen on the contract, allegedly angering Pakistani intelligence officers who stood to profit from the deal.

Investigators and relatives of the French dead suspect Pakistanis staged the bomb attack -- officially blamed on Al-Qaeda -- in revenge. Sarkozy has dismissed claims that Balladur's campaign took kickbacks on the deal.

Nevertheless, the charges against two of his closest allies pushed the story back onto the front pages Thursday, completely overshadowing Sarkozy's speech to the United Nations General Assembly on the Middle East crisis.

Investigators are probing links between Gaubert and the Franco-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine, who was charged last week with fraud over arms contracts with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in which he was allegedly middleman.

A witness questioned by police on September 8 said Takieddine often travelled to Switzerland in the mid-1990s with Gaubert to get cases of cash that were handed over to Bazire in Paris, the news website Mediapart said.

News weekly the Nouvel Observateur identified the witness as Princess Helene of Yugoslavia, who is married to Gaubert but separated from him, and who reportedly told investigators of several trips to Switzerland.

Published photographs show the leader of Sarkozy's UMP party Jean-Francois Cope, his likely campaign manager for next year Brice Hortefeux, and Takieddine relaxing on the latter's luxury yacht off the Riviera.

Gaubert and his princess wife have also been photographed on the yacht.

France's Constitutional Court was legally advised in 1995 that Balladur's campaign accounts should be rejected because of question marks over huge cash donations, but members eventually voted to approve them in a close vote.

Sarkozy came to office in 1997 vowing to lead an "irreproachable republic", but his camp has since been tainted by a series of scandals, and opinion polls show him likely to be beaten next year by a Socialist candidate.

Before the Karachi scandal caught up with his inner circle, Sarkozy found himself accused of receiving illegal campaign donations from France's richest woman, 88-year-old L'Oreal shampoo heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Investigations into the Neuilly-based billionaire's finances have now been split into eight overlapping judicial probes, including one investigating the apparent illegal funding of figures from Sarkozy's centre-right UMP.

Sarkozy has neither been charged nor questioned himself -- and fiercely denies any personal wrongdoing -- but his then budget minister and former UMP fundraiser-in-chief Eric Woerth was forced to resign.

Meanwhile, last week, Sarkozy's camp suffered collateral damage when lawyer Robert Bourgi alleged that between 1995 and 2005 he brought Chirac and ally Dominique de Villepin 20 million dollars from African dictators.

Bourgi's claims appeared designed to damage Chirac and Villepin, Sarkozy's enemies, but the Africa middleman is now an unofficial adviser to the current president and some witnesses claim payments continued to Sarkozy's office.

© 2011 AFP

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