July 19, 2010 / 1:32 PM / 9 years ago

L'Oreal heiress to be questioned in French scandal

* 87-year-old French heiress to be questioned

* Labour minister rejects conflict of interest claims

By Thierry Leveque

PARIS, July 19 (Reuters) - France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, is to be questioned by police about alleged tax evasion and money laundering in a scandal that has hit the government, a public prosecutor’s spokeswoman said on Monday.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has been embarrassed by allegations by the former bookkeeper of L’Oreal (OREP.PA) cosmetics heiress Bettencourt, 87, that the billionairess and her late husband made illegal cash donations to conservative politicians, including to Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential election.

“She will be questioned, but we have no further information at the moment,” the spokeswoman for Nanterre prosecutor Philippe Courroye said.

The announcement came as Labour Minister Eric Woerth fended off fresh accusations of a conflict of interest over a weekend report that he pushed Bettencourt’s wealth manager to employ his wife, Florence Woerth, in November 2007.

“I did not influence the recruitment of my wife, and that’s that,” Woerth told reporters on the sidelines of an official visit on the issue of equality in the workplace.

“My wife met her boss through her previous job, which was in a bank,” he said.

Bettencourt has been in the spotlight since the publication last month of secret recordings which appeared to show her advisers discussing undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland and an island in the Seychelles.

She has said in a television interview she intends to repatriate and declare the money.

Woerth, who as budget minister led a much-publicised government crackdown on tax evasion, came under fire after it emerged that his wife Florence was an employee at Clymene, the firm which manages Bettencourt’s fortune.

Sarkozy and Woerth have both denied receiving illegal cash and Woerth’s wife has since resigned her position.

The minister has denied any wrongdoing and a finance ministry tax inspectorate investigation cleared him of any meddling in Bettencourt’s tax affairs.

Questioned by police last week, Bettencourt’s wealth manager Patrice de Maistre said he met Woerth several times in 2007 and the former budget minister had asked him to meet his wife and advise her on her career, according to a transcript quoted by the newspaper Le Monde.

The president’s chief-of-staff, Claude Gueant, said the reported transcript exonerated Woerth.

“The questioning, as related by the press, shows there was no offence,” he told Le Monde.

Police are planning to question Woerth and his wife but Gueant said it would be at least another week before they did so. (Writing by Vicky Buffery; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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