July 25, 2010 / 12:42 PM / 10 years ago

Bettencourt aide denies illegally funding French party

PARIS (Reuters) - The wealth manager of France’s richest woman has denied giving illegal cash donations to Labour Minister Eric Woerth, ahead of the questioning of the L’Oreal heiress and the minister by police later this week.

View of a residence of Liliane Bettencourt, elderly heiress to the L'Oreal fortune, in Arcouest near Ploubazlanec, northern Brittany, July 9, 2010. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

The allegation was made by a former bookkeeper for Liliane Bettencourt, 87, main shareholder in cosmetics giant L’Oreal, and has led to probes into alleged tax evasion and money laundering, transfixing France and embarrassing President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government.

The bookkeeper, Claire Thibout, told police this month she had been involved in withdrawing 150,000 euros ($200,000) in cash to be given to Woerth in unmarked envelopes as a donation to Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.

The president and minister have both denied receiving illicit donations.

When asked in an interview in the Journal du Dimanche whether he had handed over the 150,000 euros to Woerth in January 2007, Patrice de Maistre said:

“I have never dealt with their (Bettencourt family) personal wealth,” he said. “The accusations of Madame Thibout are simply ridiculous.”

FAMILY FEUD

What began as a family feud over lavish gifts by Bettencourt to a close friend, society photographer Francois-Marie Banier, has turned into a political scandal as evidence has emerged of undeclared Swiss bank accounts, an island in the Seychelles and the alleged donations to conservative politicians.

Maistre said he had originally met Woerth in 2006 after Bettencourt’s late husband asked him to find out how to finance Sarkozy’s UMP party and his presidential election campaign.

French law limits donations to parties to 7,500 euros per person per year. Only 150 euros may be given in cash.

Woerth also faces allegations that he used his influence to secure a position for his wife with a company that manages part of Bettencourt’s fortune.

“Eric Woerth never asked me to hire his wife, just as the Bettencourts have never told me who to hire,” Maistre said.

Bettencourt has demanded an end to what she has described as harassment by her daughter on and intrusions into her private life, after a prosecutor blocked a bid to have her declared mentally unfit.

In a separate development, the Paris court of appeals ruled on Saturday that secret recordings of conversations between Bettencourt and Maistre —leaked by news website Mediapart that kickstarted the scandal — did not violate her privacy.

Reporting by John Irish; editing by Andrew Roche

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