Man heading Sarkozy funding probe accused of political links

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Calls mounted Saturday for the man probing whether France's richest woman gave President Nicolas Sarkozy's party illegal donations to hand the job to someone else amid accusations of possible bias.

Philippe Courroye, public prosecutor in Nanterre where L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt lives, has so far opened three preliminary investigations in the context of the most serious affair to have shaken Sarkozy's presidency.

The investigation concerning Sarkozy's UMP party came after 87-year-old Bettencourt's accountant told police that she was ordered to put together 150,000 euros (190,000 dollars) in illegal campaign donations in March 2007, according to a transcript obtained by the Mediapart website.

That money was allegedly to be given to Sarkozy's campaign fundraiser in 2007, Eric Woerth, who is now Labour Minister and whose wife worked as a wealth manager for Bettencourt's 17-billion-euro fortune.

The other two investigations focus on the the butler who secretly recorded conversations at Bettencourt's home for alleged invasion of privacy and Bettencourt herself for alleged tax evasion.

But politicians and judges' unions have called for Courroye, who as prosecutor works for the Ministry of Justice and therefore the government, to pass the case to an investigating magistrate, who is part of the judiciary and would have stronger powers, or to another prosecutor.

Former prime minister and Sarkozy arch-foe Dominique de Villepin has criticised Courroye's "friendly ties" with the president and the fact that the prosecutor is himself mentioned several times in the butler's recordings.

Opposition Socialist MP Arnaud Montebourg said that Courroye "stands up for the echelons of power" and "because he is involved with the scandal, ethically (he) should relinquish" the investigations.

The Syndicated Union of Magistrates said that an investigating magistrate independent from the executive was a necessity given the political sensitivity of the accusations.

"In sprawling cases like this, you need a totally independent inquiry head who follows it for the duration," USM secretary general Christophe Regnard told AFP.

The question of "who controls the inquiry... is today an issue for the executive," Magistracy Syndicate vice president Patrick Henriot wrote in the Liberation daily.

The USM's Regnard noted that an investigating magistrate would have more powers than a prosecutor, who can only carry out searches with the concerned party's agreement and has fewer options in terms of international cooperation.

What's more, lawyers do not have access to the prosecutor's preliminary investigations, Regnard said.

"This matter is being carried out with contempt for the defence," said Antoine Gillot, lawyer of former accountant Claire Thibout, who criticised the prosecutor's "ferocity", and called for an instructing magistrate to take over.

But the Nanterre prosecutor told AFP on Saturday that "there is no technical or judicial reason at this stage" to pass the case to an investigating magistrate as the probes are being carried out "with diligence and rigour."

The Nanterre prosecution also said that it was the only one "territorially competent" to deal with the case, nixing calls for the probe to be transferred somewhere like nearby Paris.

© 2010 AFP

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