Probe into French presidential candidate Fillon widens, Putin ties revealed
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French conservative presidential candidate François Fillon's legal problems deepened on Tuesday, with financial prosecutors expanding a probe into payments to his family to suspected "aggravated fraud, forgery and use of forgeries", a source said.
Investigators are probing whether Fillon and his wife Penelope forged documents to try to justify around 700,000 euros ($757,000) she earned for a suspected fake job as a parliamentary assistant, according to the source.
The news came as Socialist Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux resigned after revelations that he had hired his two teenage daughters as parliamentary aides, prompting comparisons to Fillon's scandal.
France goes to the polls next month for the first round of its two-stage presidential election. It has been a rollercoaster campaign, with a string of revelations that have knocked Fillon from the top of the opinion polls.
His wife Penelope and two of the couple's children are suspected of holding fake jobs as parliamentary aides for which they were paid around 900,000 euros in total.
French lawmakers are allowed to hire family members as assistants, as long as they do real work.
The conservative presidential candidate denies any wrongdoing, claiming to be the victim of an attempted "political assassination" and questioning the justice system's impartiality.
The widened probe includes documents signed by Penelope Fillon bearing differing calculations of hours worked, the daily Le Monde reported.
Investigators are looking into whether "the calculations constitute forgeries made to justify, after the fact, the wages that were paid," it said.
A lawyer for Penelope Fillon denied media reports that false documents may have been supplied to justify work and payments between the couple that are being investigated by magistrates.
Lawyer Pierre Cornut-Gentille issued a statement on Wednesday saying he vehemently denied the reports of new documents being seized by the examining magistrates.
"Since Penelope Fillon's past activities on behalf of her husband were real, all the documents pertaining to this work are also unquestionably genuine," he said in the statement.
The expenses scandal have bolstered the widespread belief that France's political class is self-serving and out of touch with ordinary people.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron are the two leading candidates in the election, according to opinion polls, with the first round due on April 23 and the run-off vote on May 7.
Fillon sought to shift the focus from his legal woes to his cost-cutting platform in a debate on Monday among the top five presidential candidates.
But on Tuesday he was hit by potentially even more embarrassing revelations.
Le Canard Enchainé newspaper reported that Fillon introduced a Lebanese oil pipeline builder -- with whom he signed a $50,000 lobbying contract -- to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a business forum in St. Petersburg in 2015.
"The suspicions of conflict of interest are totally unfounded," Fillon's campaign team told AFP, insisting he had never taken money from Putin or a Russian company.
With one month to go before the first round of elections for a successor to the deeply unpopular Socialist President François Hollande -- who is not seeking re-election -- the electorate is particularly disillusioned.
Only 17 percent of those questioned in an Ipsos poll last month gave high marks to France's democratic system.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)