French minister's wife quizzed in heiress scandal
PARIS (Reuters) - Police questioned the wife of Labour Minister Eric Woerth on Wednesday about how she came to work for a firm managing the fortune of France's richest woman, after allegations that her husband intervened in her favour.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's cabinet meanwhile agreed to a prosecutor's request to question Woerth in an investigation into alleged money laundering and tax evasion involving L'Oreal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
Florence Woerth was recruited in 2007 by Bettencourt' wealth manager at a time when her husband was budget minister in charge of a crackdown on tax evasion and simultaneously treasurer of the ruling conservative UMP party.
The wealth manager, Patrice de Maistre, told police last week that Eric Woerth had asked him to meet his wife and give her career advice, according to a partial transcript of his testimony published by the newspaper Le Monde.
The minister denied on Tuesday that he had any influence on the recruitment of his wife.
"I never asked that my wife be employed. Never, never, never," he told Europe 1 radio.
The matter was brought to light by secret recordings made by Bettencourt's butler as evidence in a separate lawsuit in which the billionairess's daughter, Francois Meyers-Bettencourt, is seeking to have her 87-year-old mother declared mentally irresponsible and made a ward of court.
The recordings appeared to show the billionairess's legal and financial advisers discussing undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland and an island in the Seychelles. On one of the tapes, De Maistre is heard to say he recruited Florence Woerth to please the minister, according to published transcripts.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Sarkozy's chief-of-staff, Claude Gueant, have said Woerth did not commit any offence since the finance ministry's tax inspectorate has concluded that he did not interfere in any way in Bettencourt's tax affairs.
Woerth has also denied allegations by a former Bettencourt bookkeeper that he received an illegal cash donation from the heiress and her late husband for Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.
Bookkeeper Claire Thibout told police she had not seen the handover herself but had been told that money she had withdrawn from the bank was destined for Woerth, her lawyer said.
Under fresh questioning by a judge, Thibout acknowledged having received 400,000 euros (335,000 pounds) from Bettencourt's daughter in addition to a 500,000 euro severance payment from the heiress, the lawyer said.
(Reporting by Thierry Leveque, writing by Paul Taylor, editing by Jon Hemming)
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