Police probe French former interior minister over phone leak

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French police were Friday to question former interior minister Brice Hortefeux after he called a key suspect in a campaign financing scandal to warn him his wife was talking too much, his lawyer said.

"Mr Hortefeux will be questioned this morning as a witness," Jean-Yves Dupeux told AFP, after Hortefeux's call to Thierry Gaubert was revealed.

Gaubert, a close aide to Nicolas Sarkozy before he became president, is accused of going to Switzerland to pick up cases of cash to finance Edouard Balladur's unsuccessful 1995 presidential election campaign.

In 1995, Sarkozy was the campaign spokesman for his mentor Balladur, as well as his budget minister, and the complex case is one of several now threatening to derail the unpopular president's 2012 re-election bid.

It is alleged the Swiss money was kickbacks from arms sales to Pakistan, and that a 2002 Karachi bombing that killed 11 French engineers was revenge for the cancellation of bribes secretly promised to Pakistani officials.

Hortefeux's call came after Gaubert's estranged wife, Princess Helene of Yugoslavia, made a statement to investigators alleging that her husband had made several trips to Switzerland to get cash in the 1990s.

Hortefeux is accused of breaching the confidentiality of a judicial investigation, of which he somehow had inside knowledge.

"She's giving up a lot, apparently, Helene," Hortefeux told his friend four days after the princess spoke, according to a transcript of the call, which was intercepted by investigators and leaked to AFP and other media.

"What news have you got on that?" Gaubert asked. "I don't want to discuss this on the phone," Hortefeux replied, adding: "There's a lot, though, eh?"

"Helene didn't speak to them directly," Gaubert insisted, surprised.

"She was interviewed. She knows. She was aware of your activities. Listen, uh, try to swing by to see me one of these days anyway," Hortefeux replied. Gaubert has been released but has been charged and is under investigation.

After the phone conversation was leaked, Hortefeux said he wanted to be interviewed by magistrates. He categorically denied that he had breached the confidentiality of the judicial investigation.

Sarkozy insists he had no responsibility for the funding side of Balladur's campaign, but many of the figures so far implicated in the probe are among his closest friends and allies, casting a cloud over his own re-election bid.

Balladur's campaign manager Nicolas Bazire is also accused of handling the alleged Pakistani cash. Bazire was best man at Sarkozy's 2008 wedding to supermodel-turned-singer Carla Bruni.

© 2011 AFP

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