France's Sarkozy denies cash scandal

Police probed allegations that Sarkozy's election campaign received illegal donations from France's richest woman throwing up the biggest crisis of his mandate.

France's Sarkozy denies cash scandal

Police on Tuesday probed allegations that President Nicolas Sarkozy's election campaign received illegal donations from France's richest woman throwing up the biggest crisis of his mandate.

The French leader dismissed the charges as "smears" but he faces mounting calls from within his camp to make a stronger defence over the scandal engulfing the ruling party.

Two ministers have already resigned this week for spending public money on cigars and luxury jets and pressure is growing on Labour Minister Eric Woerth for his role in the alleged funding that came from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

A reported interview with a former bookkeeper, named only as Claire T., for Liliane Bettencourt, the main shareholder in cosmetics giant L'Oreal, told news website Mediapart she had given Labour Minister Eric Woerth a 150,000 euro ($200,000) cash donation in unmarked envelopes for Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

Donations to politicians and their parties are strictly limited in France.

An official in Sarkozy's office, asked if the president had received cash payments in person, said: "That's totally false."

Asked whether Woerth, treasurer of Sarkozy's campaign in 2007, had received such a donation, the official said: "That seems unfounded but you must check with the treasurer of the campaign."

A spokeswoman for Woerth denied he had accepted cash donations for Sarkozy, telling Reuters: "All of this is false."

Mediapart, which last month reported secret recordings of conversations between Bettencourt and her wealth manager, quoted the bookkeeper as saying the billionairess and her late husband had regularly given envelopes stuffed with cash to conservative politicians.

It said she had requested anonymity because she is being questioned as a witness by prosecutors but has not been charged with any offence.

"She cites two names, Eric Woerth, the current labour minister, who has long been treasurer of the UMP party, and she recounts how in March 2007 she gave him cash -- so much that she had to go and fetch some in Switzerland -- altogether 150,000 euros, and she gave it to him for Nicolas Sarkozy," Mediapart editor Edwy Plenel told France Inter radio.

Woerth, whose wife worked for Bettencourt's wealth manager until she resigned last month, has denied any wrongdoing and rejected any conflict of interest between his dual roles as treasurer of the ruling party and budget minister until March.

The labour minister is in charge of a landmark reform of pensions due to go to parliament in September and Sarkozy said last week he expected to reshuffle the government after the bill is adopted in October.

"Cash for politicians"

Mediapart quoted Claire T. as saying she had collected large sums in cash from a bank in Paris' 16th district over many years, which the Bettencourts gave to politicians who visited them at their villa in the exclusive Neuilly residential suburb.

"Politicians were constantly marching through the house, especially at election time. Dede (Andre Bettencourt) was a big giver. They all came to pick up their envelopes, sometimes as much as 100,000 euros, or even 200,000 euros," the bookkeeper was quoted as saying.

She said Sarkozy was a regular visitor to the villa in the 1990s when he was mayor of Neuilly, and she had overheard their conversations because the Bettencourts were quite deaf and he had to speak loudly so they could hear him.

"Nicolas Sarkozy used to get his envelope too. It happened in one of the little ground floor salons next to the dining room. It usually happened after the meal," Mediapart quoted Claire T. as saying. "Again, everyone in the house knew that Sarkozy too went to see the Bettencourts to pick up money."

Claire T. was quoted as saying she could not prove her allegations with documents because she had handed back three cash books along with other papers after she was dismissed in November 2008.

A public prosecutor who reported suspicions of tax evasion by Bettencourt to the budget ministry last year plans to open an investigation into the suspected laundering of evasion proceeds, his office said on Monday.


Agencies

Güncelleme Tarihi: 06 Temmuz 2010, 15:27

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