Police step up Sarkozy illegal funding probe

Police step up Sarkozy illegal funding probe

The search of Patrice de Maistre's residence and firm came a day after police questioned the ex-accountant to Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics empire, about her allegations of cash gifts to Sarkozy.

Prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into claims by the accountant of a USD 190,000 donation from Bettencourt given to Eric Woerth, Sarkozy's campaign fundraiser in 2007 who is now labour minister.

The scandal is the latest blow to Sarkozy, whose approval ratings are at an all-time low and who is battling to save Woerth over conflict of interest allegations linked to the 87-year-old billionaire.

The architect of pension reform, Woerth is to present a bill to cabinet next week that will raise the legal retirement age and push through a centerpiece of Sarkozy's agenda as he heads for a re-election fight in 2012.

Woerth has strenuously denied taking any illegal donations from Bettencourt and Sarkozy has dismissed the claims as a smear campaign, but the scandal has sparked calls for the high-profile minister to resign.

The accountant, Claire Thibout, told police during three hours of questioning yesterday that the financial adviser had asked her "before the presidential election to go pick up 150,000 euros at the bank" according to a transcript obtained by the Mediapart website.
"When I asked him what the money was for, he said that he had a dinner planned with Mr Woerth to give it to him," she said.

But Thibout denied a report in Mediapart that Sarkozy was a regular visitor at Bettencourt's villa in the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly when he was mayor of the town and that he often received cash envelopes."I never said that envelopes were regularly passsed on to Mr Sarkozy," she said