As scandal swirls, Spain probes king's businesswoman friend

MADRID Tue Mar 19, 2013 2:25pm EDT

Spain's intelligence chief General Felix Sanz Roldan gestures as he arrives at Parliament to appear before a commission in Madrid March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

Spain's intelligence chief General Felix Sanz Roldan gestures as he arrives at Parliament to appear before a commission in Madrid March 19, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Sergio Perez

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MADRID (Reuters) - The head of Spanish intelligence was quizzed behind closed doors in parliament on Tuesday over whether public money had been spent on a woman whose friendship with King Juan Carlos has fueled talk of scandal and abdication.

Members of the parliamentary committee which oversees security spending and Felix Sanz of the National Intelligence Centre were bound by official secrecy not to reveal the content of the hearing, which lasted for some two hours in Madrid.

It was called by lawmakers probing whether Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a German-born businesswoman based in Monaco, had ever benefited from a Spanish security detail or received any payments from the state as a lobbyist for Spanish firms abroad.

Public irritation with the 75-year-old king, long admired for his role in restoring democracy, has mounted as his luxury lifestyle, rumors of adultery and allegations of corruption in the royal family have taken prominence in once respectful local media while ordinary Spaniards face a crippling economic crisis.

Sayn-Wittgenstein, aged in her late 40s and divorced from the German prince whose name she bears, has told newspapers she has known Juan Carlos for nine years and is a close friend.

A spokesman for the royal family declined to comment.

The king's friendship with Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was born as Corinna Larsen to a Danish family, emerged a year ago when Juan Carlos was flown home from Botswana after an injury while hunting elephant. She was among the party on a trip which caused controversy at a time when Spain's money troubles were acute.

The king, whose constitutional role is largely symbolic, made an unprecedented apology for his behavior, but that has failed to silence demands in some quarters for him to abdicate in favor of his 45-year-old son, Crown Prince Felipe, the youngest of his three children with Queen Sofia, 74.

CORRUPTION PROBE

Sayn-Wittgenstein, who could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, was also named by Spanish media in the context of an investigation into alleged embezzlement of public funds by Inaki Urdangarin, the king's son-in-law and a former national handball player. She has told media she once discussed arranging a job for Urdangarin. She has not been accused of wrongdoing.

Juan Carlos, a descendant of the king deposed in 1931 when Spain became a republic, was named as successor by the military dictator Francisco Franco. As head of state following Franco's death in 1975, he was widely praised for steering the country back to democracy and helping stifle a military coup in 1981.

In December, however, a survey found 79 percent of Spaniards felt that Prince Felipe was ready to be head of state, while the king's personal approval rating has fallen to 58 percent, down from 74 percent before his African safari.

Sayn-Wittgenstein told Spanish newspaper El Mundo in February that she had carried out "sensitive and confidential" assignments for the Spanish government: "These were specific, classified matters and I helped for the good of the country."

The government has, however, denied that.

Sayn-Wittgenstein said she was not paid from public funds for her services but that she did receive payments from private companies. She ran a British-based company called Apollonia Ventures Limited that acted as an intermediary for international institutions and private investors in foreign countries. The firm was dissolved in April of last year.

(Additional reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary, Iciar Reinlein and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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