Police search office of adviser to French heiress amid claims of illegal campaign donations

Friday, July 9, 2010

Adviser to heiress target of French police search

PARIS — Police searched the offices of the financial adviser to France’s richest woman Friday as part of a growing scandal that includes allegations she gave cash illegally to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign.

Three vans of police officers arrived at the offices of Patrice de Maistre, chief financial adviser to L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. They cordoned off the modern office building in the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, where Sarkozy was long mayor, and officers were coming in and out.

French authorities are looking into Bettencourt’s foreign bank accounts and tax file. Separately, French prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation this week into claims that she secretly gave €150,000 to Sarkozy’s party during his 2007 presidential election campaign.

The claims, which are unproven and which Sarkozy denies, are part of a large and growing scandal that has destabilized Sarkozy’s conservative government and helped push the president’s approval ratings to new lows among French voters squeezed by the global economic crisis.

De Maistre has been at the heart of the affair, which stemmed from an inheritance dispute between Bettencourt and her daughter.

De Maistre recently acknowledged that Bettencourt had tens of millions of euros in foreign bank accounts.

Sarkozy has sought to crack down on tax havens and wealthy French taxpayers with assets abroad.

A preliminary inquiry was opened Friday regarding tape recordings allegedly made by one of Bettencourt’s butlers concerning bank accounts in Switzerland, the prosecutor’s office said.

More explosively, a former accountant who worked under de Maistre, Claire Thibout, told investigators that de Maistre ordered her to withdraw large chunks of cash from Bettencourt’s accounts for Sarkozy’s UMP party during the 2007 election campaign.

De Maistre and Thibout were questioned together by investigators Thursday.

Thibout denied earlier reports attributed to her that envelopes of cash were given to Sarkozy himself, according to a judicial official. She told investigators Thursday that de Maistre asked her to withdraw money to give to UMP treasurer Eric Woerth.

Antoine Gillot, Thibout’s lawyer, told The Associated Press on Friday that extracts of his client’s questioning had been leaked to media to destabilize his client and called for an independent investigating magistrate to be named to conduct the inquiry.

During Wednesday’s questioning, De Maistre denied ordering any such withdrawals, the judicial official said. The official was not authorized to be publicly named, according to French judicial policy.

Woerth is Sarkozy’s labor minister and in charge of a difficult pension reform that aims to raise the retirement age in France from 60 to 62. Opposition politicians are demanding that Woerth resign, but Sarkozy has vigorously defended him.

Campaign finance scandals have dogged past French administrations. Sarkozy calls the campaign cash allegations an effort to smear him.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Friday that the allegations were “not based on evidence.”

The people behind the claims “were perhaps blinded by a passion to harm the president, while they in fact harmed France,” he said during a visit to Croatia.

Bettencourt’s lawyer, Georges Kiejman, said Thursday that “nothing has proven that Madame Bettencourt is conducting secret political financing.”

An intergovernmental financial inspection agency is investigating Bettencourt’s tax file, and says it will release its findings by Monday.

Associated Press writer Snjezana Vukic in Zagreb, Croatia, contributed to this report.

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