Former Labour Minister Eric Woerth was placed under formal investigation Thursday for his involvement in a complicated campaign finance scandal that comes inauspiciously close to the expected re-election bid of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
REUTERS - Former French budget minister Eric Woerth was placed under formal investigation for illicit party financing on Thursday, reigniting a scandal that could weaken President Nicolas Sarkozy weeks before a presidential election.
The accusations, which emerged in 2010 as part of an inquiry into the affairs of L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, relate to an alleged cash payment of 150,000 euros which Woerth is said to have received from the billionairess to fund Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.
Woerth had been placed under investigation on Wednesday over accusations he used his influence to secure a Legion d’Honneur for the man who managed Bettencourt’s fortune, after Woerth’s wife was hired by the family’s holding company.
“These facts have never existed, M. Woerth is outraged that he is being asked to account for something that never happened,” Woerth’s lawyer Jean-Yves Leborgne told Reuters on Thursday.
Woerth, who was questioned for nine hours on Thursday, has always denied wrongdoing, calling the allegations slander.
In France, the opening of an official investigation does not automatically lead to charges but suggests investigators believe their preliminary findings give them enough grounds to consider Woerth a suspect.
The Bettencourt affair began as a family dispute in 2007 after Bettencourt’s daughter accused French photographer Francois-Marie Banier of extorting vast sums from her mother.
The affair ballooned into a political scandal in the summer of 2010 after allegations emerged that Woerth had accepted 150,000 euros from the wealthy heiress for the ruling UMP party.
The payment, allegedly made via Bettencourt’s wealth manager Patrice de Maistre, would be illegal in France as political donations are limited to 7,600 euros for parties and 4,600 euros for individual candidates.
Woerth, who was UMP party treasurer during the period in question, left Sarkozy’s government at the end of 2010 after months of fending off accusations of influence-peddling.
However, the announcement of a new inquiry risks reopening the political scandal at a difficult time for the president, just days before he is expected to announce he is seeking a second term in April and May’s two-round vote.
Sarkozy is already facing an uphill struggle for
re-election, with Socialist candidate Francois Hollande leading
in the polls and far-right Marine Le Pen snapping at his heels for second place.
The Woerth case is another awkward diversion from campaigning after a series of probes and accusations linked to his allies.
Sarkozy’s office in late August denied allegations published in a national newspaper he was handed cash by Bettencourt for his 2007 election campaign.
Bettencourt, France’s richest woman, is the largest shareholder in cosmetics group L’Oreal.
Date created : 2012-02-09