Police quiz accountant in Sarkozy funding probe

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Police on Thursday questioned the ex-accountant of France's richest woman over allegations of secret donations to President Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign, amid reports she had recanted part of her claims.

Le Monde and Le Figaro newspapers reported that Claire 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.

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 Mister 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 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 Liberation newspaper, 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.

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 allegations of secret political funding.

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

"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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