French minister hits back over secret tapes scandal

20th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

A French minister on Sunday hit back at attacks after his wife was linked to a growing scandal over secretly taped conversations by France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt.

"Enough is enough. My wife is going to file a complaint," Eric Woerth said in an interview with several French media after a Socialist lawmaker suggested the minister's wife had helped Bettencourt commit tax fraud.

Woerth's wife Florence managed part of Bettencourt's financial affairs from 2007 until earlier this year and her ties to the 87-year-old L'Oreal heiress have come under scrutiny following reports of the secret tapes.

The conversations -- transcripts of which have been obtained by the Mediapart website and Le Point weekly -- reveal that Bettencourt allegedly conspired to evade taxes, hiding money in Swiss bank accounts while making big donations to the governing UMP party.

The tapes were secretly recorded by Bettencourt's former butler and have brought a new twist to a legal saga between the billionaire and her daughter who charges that her mother is no longer fit to manage the family fortune.

Socialist deputy Arnaud Montebourg at the weekend suggested that Woerth, formerly the budget minister, should step down to allow the "truth to be known" about Bettencourt's financial dealings.

"It seems to me that it would be extremely difficult for Eric Woerth to stay at his post in a government that has made dismantling tax havens a priority," said Montebourg.

"We had a budget minister who was also a treasurer for the UMP and whose wife worked to help Mrs Bettencourt with her tax fraud," said Montebourg.

Woerth shot back that he had become a "target" of the opposition because he is in charge of the government's delicate pensions reform and said his wife was an "employee, not a manager" of the firm that helps manage her fortune.

French police last week questioned the ex-butler and a computer expert over the tapes recorded between May 2009 and May 2010 in Bettencourt's villa in the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

The scandal over butler's tapes erupted just two weeks before a photographer is to go on trial to answer charges from Bettencourt's daughter that he took advantage of her elderly mother when he accepted lavish gifts from her.

The photographer, Francois-Marie Banier, received masterpiece paintings, cash and insurance policies worth one billion euros (1.24 billion dollars) from Bettencourt.

According to the Mediapart website, the recordings reveal that Bettencourt hid some 80 million euros in Swiss bank accounts that her financial adviser planned to move following a Franco-Swiss tax cooperation accord.

© 2010 AFP

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