France’s main opposition UMP party told a communications agency to produce fake invoices to cover up vast over-spending during Nicolas Sarkozy’s failed 2012 presidential election campaign, a lawyer for the agency said on Monday.
A senior UMP official later acknowledged "anomalies" in the campaign’s funding, sparking the potential for a scandal that could engulf the party’s current leader Jean-Francois Copé, as well as scupper Sarkozy’s hopes of a political come-back.
Patrick Maisonneuve, a lawyer for the Bygmalion communications agency, told a press conference that the UMP pressured the company to mis-label invoices as being for party conventions when they were actually for Sarkozy campaign rallies.
This meant charges went to the UMP rather than the Sarkozy campaign. He estimated the total value of these “fake invoices” at “more than 10 million euros”.
Maisonneuve alleged that UMP officials had made clear to Bygmalion staff at the time that if they did not comply they would not get paid. He accused the party of “financial blackmail”.
Speaking after Maisonneuve’s comments, UMP official and the former deputy director of Sarkozy’s 2012 campaign, Jérôme Lavrilleux, admitted there had been “anomalies” in Sarkozy’s campaign funding and that “there were some invoices charged to the UMP which corresponded to campaign expenses”.
However, neither Sarkozy nor Copé had been made aware of the “drift” in campaign finances, he told France’s BFMTV.
"There was no wrongdoing, there was a terrible spiral, a train going at high speed and people who should have pulled the emergency alarm and didn't, and I was probably one of them," Lavrilleux said.
Sarkozy has already been judged to have exceeded spending limits for his 2012 election campaign in a ruling by France’s Constitutional Council last year.
It said Sarkozy had filed expenses of nearly 23 million euros, 2.1 per cent more than is allowed under French law.
Following Maisonneuve’s accusations, police searched the UMP’s offices, as well as those of Bygmalion and a think tank run by Copé, a source close to the investigation told Reuters.
Pressure mounts on Copé
The latest allegations will pile pressure on Copé - the party’s general secretary at the time - who has already faced calls for his resignation over the so-called ‘Bygmalion affair’.
Earlier this year, French media alleged that a subsidiary of Bygmalion, which was founded by two of Copé's associates, had systematically overcharged the UMP to organise campaign events in the run-up to the 2012 election.
Copé earlier on Monday denied knowledge of any wrongdoing, saying that he had been busy organising the campaign of Sarkozy, who was defeated by François Hollande.
“It was natural for me to trust the people charged with that,” he told BFMTV of the UMP party’s accounts. “I didn’t think my job was to be looking over their shoulders.”
Maisonneuve’s accusations come a day before Copé is expected to face challenges to his leadership at a closed-door meeting of senior UMP officials. At stake could be the question of who ends up getting the UMP ticket to run for president in 2017.
Sarkozy is widely tipped to be preparing a come-back but he could face challenges from other top conservatives including François Fillon and Alain Juppe.
Copé’s position was already weakened by the poor result of the UMP in Sunday’s European Parliament elections, where it was beaten into second place by the far-right National Front.
“I do not see how he can remain in charge,” said UMP deputy Lionel Tardy, an ally of Fillon, a former prime minister who has made no secret of his ambition to take over the running of the UMP.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-05-26