Testimony raises heat on scandal-hit French minister: report

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French Labour Minister Eric Woerth faced fresh pressure Saturday in a cash scandal over France's richest woman after police questioned one of her advisers, according to details published by a newspaper.

It was the latest in the almost daily developments in the case over alleged tax evasion, illegal political party funding and conflicts of interest concerning Woerth and Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics empire.

Woerth has denied wrongdoing in the case, which has seen him accused among other things of a conflict of interest when his wife worked for Bettencourt's estate while he was budget minister responsible for fighting tax evasion.

However, details of the latest testimony revealed in leaked extracts published by the newspaper Le Monde have raised the heat on him.

Bettencourt's wealth manager Patrice de Maistre told police Woerth had asked him "to meet his wife to advise her on her career," according to Le Monde.

The report bolstered claims of links between the minister and Bettencourt's fortune, although it still did not provide any definite proof.

Woerth's lawyer Jean-Yves Leborgne played down the report, telling AFP that the hiring of Florence Woerth was "totally normal, not the result of pressure by Mr Woerth."

It also did not clash with Woerth's ministerial activities, the lawyer added.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has backed Woerth but the scandal has come at a delicate time as they push on with a controversial pensions reform and Sarkozy contemplates the 2012 presidential election.

© 2010 AFP

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