Accountant in Sarkozy funding probe stands by claims: lawyer

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The former accountant of France's richest woman on Thursday stood by allegations that she was asked to withdraw tens of thousands of euros to be given to President Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign fundraiser, her lawyer said.

Police on Thursday questioned Claire Thibout over her accusations of secret donations to Sarkozy's campaign, amid reports she had recanted part of her claims.

Le Monde and Le Figaro newspapers reported that Thibout told police she had never claimed as reported by a website that Sarkozy took cash envelopes from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, 87.

The Elysee presidential palace pounced on the reports as vindication.

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

Thibout's lawyer Antoine Gillot, however, said his client had during questioning on Thursday been confronted by Patrice de Maistre, administrator of Bettencourt's fortune, and refused to withdraw her earlier statements.

"I am not surprised that my client has maintained her claims in the course of this confrontation," said Antoine Gillot, adding that the authorities had been relentless in their efforts to have her drop the accusations.

"Everything is being done to make her go back on her claims," he added.

Prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into claims by Thibout of cash donations from Bettencourt given to Eric Woerth, who was then Sarkozy's campaign fundraiser and is now labour minister.

But the ex-accountant denied as a "fairy tale" a report that Sarkozy himself came to Bettencourt's villa in the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly to collect an envelope stuffed with cash.

"I never said that envelopes were regularly handed over to Mr Sarkozy," she was quoted as saying.

"These are interesting elements that show these allegations come from a litter box of accusations," said Gueant, who suggested that the accountant's reported retraction cast doubt on her entire story.

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 Bettencourt.

The architect of pension reform, Woerth is to present a bill to raise the legal retirement age to cabinet next week that is considered the 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.

According to extracts of the accountant's records which have been seen by police and obtained by the newspaper Liberation, Thibout did indeed withdraw 50,000 euros in cash from a family account on March 26, 2007.

Thibout has told police that this sum was given to Bettencourt, added to 100,000 euros taken separately from a Swiss bank account and then handed over to Woerth for Sarkozy's presidential campaign.

But, according to Liberation, there is no document to prove that the heiress of the cosmetics empire received the 50,000 euros in cash, which would be far above the legal ceiling of 7,500 euros per year.

"Nothing proves that Mrs Bettencourt made (illegal) political funding," Bettencourt's lawyer Georges Kiejman told a news conference.

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.

Mediapart editor Edwy Plenel Thursday criticised Sarkozy's government for its attacks on his website, after the secretary-general of Sarkozy's UMP party Xavier Bertrand accused the site of adopting "fascist tactics."

"The violence, bad faith and hubris of these attacks show a panic not in the face of 'a rumour', but specific facts," said Plenel.

Woerth has been accused of a conflict of interest since his wife worked as a wealth manager for Bettencourt's 17-billion-euro (21-billion-dollar) fortune while he was budget minister tasked with fighting tax dodgers.

Meeting lawmakers Wednesday at the Elysee Palace, Sarkozy told them he was confident that a forthcoming report by government inspectors would clear Woerth of a conflict of interest.

His wife has since resigned from the firm and Woerth has said he will file a legal complaint for defamation over allegations of secret political funding.

"If he did something wrong, I'll punish him, and if he didn't I don't see why I would punish him. But I'm pretty confident that they won't find fault," Sarkozy said, according to people present at the talks.

© 2010 AFP

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