Tags: Sarkozy France bookkeeper

Bookkeeper Recants Story of Sarkozy Scandal

Friday, 09 Jul 2010 06:38 AM


PARIS - An aide to President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Thursday that a former bookkeeper for France's richest woman had denied ever saying Sarkozy personally received envelopes stuffed with cash in illegal political donations.

The bookkeeper, Claire Thibout, was questioned by police on Wednesday evening and Thursday after telling investigators and a media website that she withdrew cash to be given to politicians, including Sarkozy, on behalf of Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L'Oreal (OREP.PA) cosmetics fortune, and her late husband.

"She totally and clearly exonerates the president," the aide in Sarkozy's Elysee presidential office said of Thibout's latest statement to police, which has not been officially released. He was speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Thibout's lawyer told Reuters public prosecutors had put unacceptable pressure on his client to recant while denying him access to her.

"The word pressure seems to me appropriate. I consider the prosecutor's harassment of her absolutely scandalous," lawyer Antoine Gillot said.


The presidential aide said the bookkeeper had also cleared Labour Minister Eric Woerth, who was treasurer of Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign, of allegations of receiving a cash donation from the Bettencourts.

Gillot said earlier that Thibout had told police on Monday that she had withdrawn 50,000 euros in cash to be given to Woerth as part of a 150,000 euro illegal campaign donation. She had not witnessed the handover personally but had been told about it.

The scandal, which began as a family feud between the heiress and her daughter, has rocked France's conservative government, leading to calls for Woerth to resign and for Sarkozy to reshuffle the cabinet and explain himself.

"This is a legal turning point," the presidential aide said.

The news website Mediapart published a lengthy interview on Tuesday in which the bookkeeper was quoted as saying that many conservative politicians had paraded through the Bettencourts' villa to collect plain brown envelopes stuffed with banknotes, particularly at election campaign.

Mediapart quoted her as saying that Sarkozy had been a regular visitor when he was mayor of the Bettencourts' home district of Neuilly from 1983 to 2002 and he too had received envelopes.

Mediapart said it stood by its story. However the newspaper Le Monde said Thibout had denied parts of the Mediapart report.

"The Mediapart article quotes me having said things about the election campaign of Mr (Edouard) Balladur. It's totally wrong. That was romanticised by Mediapart. Just as I never said that envelopes were regularly given to Mr Sarkozy," Le Monde quoted the bookkeeper as telling police.

A public prosecutor said on Wednesday he had ordered a police investigation into allegations of illegal political funding made by Thibout in her statements to police and a media interview. Both Woerth and Bettencourt's wealth manager have filed defamation suits over her allegations.

Woerth has denied any wrongdoing and insisted he will not resign.

The beleaguered minister suffered another setback early on Thursday when lawmakers in the ruling UMP party voted against a measure he had proposed extending trade union representation rights to small companies. The opposition Socialists and Communists voted in favour of the move.

The rare rejection of a government bill by centre-right lawmakers came at the same time as senators in France's upper house defeated a government proposal to reform the statute of local elected officials.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon on Wednesday said he would not be stampeded into an early cabinet reshuffle over the Bettencourt affair.

An opinion poll for Le Parisien daily showed 55 percent of voters want a government shake-up because of the Bettencourt affair and 48 percent of respondents want Sarkozy to address the nation on the issue. (Additional reporting by Sophie Taylor and Thierry Leveque, writing by Paul Taylor, editing by Philippa Fletcher)



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