French police summon accountant over Sarkozy funding claims

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Police will again question an ex-accountant of France's richest woman to verify her allegations of secret donations to Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential campaign in 2007, judicial sources said Thursday.

Prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into the claims by Claire Thibout of cash donations from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt given to Eric Woerth, then Sarkozy's campaign fundraiser and now labour minister.

The scandal is the latest blow to Sarkozy, whose approval ratings are at a record-low and who is battling to save Woerth over conflict of interest allegations linked to Bettencourt.

Woerth has strenuously denied taking any illegal donations from Bettencourt and the 87-year-old billionairess' financial advisor, Patrice de Maistre, has also rejected the claims, prosecutors told AFP.

In the latest twist, Le Monde newspaper reported that Thibout had recanted some of the allegations and the Liberation daily also said that some doubts had emerged over her account to police.

According to extracts of the accountant's records which have been seen by police and obtained by 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.

Police were to quiz Thibout later Thursday and sources said she could be detained for further questioning.

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 (21-billion-dollar) fortune while he was budget minister tasked with fighting tax dodgers.

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

© 2010 AFP

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