French police hold key figures in Bettencourt case

PARIS Thu Jul 15, 2010 7:09am EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - Police detained four figures close to France's richest woman for questioning on Thursday in an investigation into alleged tax evasion and money laundering, a spokeswoman for the public prosecutor said.

Francois-Marie Banier, a close friend of L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, Patrice de Maistre, her wealth manager, Fabrice Goguel, her tax lawyer, and Carlos Vejarano, the manager of a property in the Seychelles islands, were being questioned at the headquarters of the financial crimes division, she said.

The affair has embarrassed President Nicolas Sarkozy's government because of allegations by Bettencourt's former bookkeeper that the billionairess and her late husband made illegal cash donations to conservative politicians.

Banier, a society photographer, is already facing trial charged with abusing the 87-year-old Bettencourt's frailty to obtain gifts estimated at up to 1 billion euros ($1.28 billion).

Secret recordings made by a former butler in Bettencourt's household, of which transcripts were published by French media last month, appeared to show her advisers discussing undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland and an island in the Seychelles, acquired through a bank in Liechtenstein.

"These four people are in custody for questioning about the contents of the secret recordings," the spokeswoman for Nanterre public prosecutor Philippe Courroye said.

Courroye has ordered three investigations into suspected laundering of the proceeds of tax evasion, invasion of privacy over the secret recordings, and the bookkeeper's allegations about an illegal donation to Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

So far, no one has been charged with any offence in those investigations.

Bettencourt, the main shareholder in cosmetics giant L'Oreal, called in a statement on Wednesday for an audit into firms managing her fortune to show she was mentally competent.

The move came in response to a renewed attempt by her daughter, Francoise Meyers-Bettencourt, to have her mother declared mentally unfit and made a ward of court.

In the past several weeks, the family feud has also engulfed Labour Minister Eric Woerth, who has denied receiving an illegal cash donation for Sarkozy's campaign from the Bettencourts, as alleged by the former bookkeeper.

Woerth, cleared by an official report of any interference in Bettencourt's tax affairs when he was budget minister, has stepped down as treasurer of the ruling UMP party and his wife has quit her job with Bettencourt's wealth manager. But allegations of conflicts of interest continue to dog him.

(reporting by Thierry Leveque, writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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