Ex-president allegedly took $5 million from France's richest woman

Sarkozy is charged with swindling ailing heiress

AFP-JIJI

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been charged with taking financial advantage of the country’s richest woman, allegations connected with a probe into illegal party funding that could shatter his hopes of a political comeback.

Sarkozy’s lawyers said they would appeal the decision to formally investigate him over allegations he took advantage of elderly L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, 90, when she was in a weakened state from poor health.

The former president was unexpectedly summoned Thursday to the Bordeaux offices of Jean-Michel Gentil, the judge in charge of the case, for face-to-face encounters with at least four former members of Bettencourt’s staff.

The surprise confrontation hinges on claims that Sarkozy accepted envelopes stuffed with cash from Bettencourt, the third-richest woman in the world, to fund his 2007 presidential campaign. Gentil was seeking to establish how many times Sarkozy had visited the heiress during his successful campaign.

Sarkozy has always maintained that he visited Bettencourt’s residence only once during that time, to meet with her husband. His version of events has been contradicted by members of the multibillionaire’s staff.

Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, lambasted the decision to pursue his client as “legally incoherent and unfair.” He said he would immediately initiate proceedings to have the charges dropped. Just minutes earlier, a car carrying Sarkozy had sped away from the judge’s offices with a police escort.

Last November, Gentil and two other examining magistrates spent 12 hours interrogating Sarkozy. They decided not to formally charge him at the time but to continue investigating the allegations against him.

Bettencourt and medical experts say her mental capacity began to deteriorate from autumn 2006. Sarkozy allegedly obtained significant amounts of money from her, simultaneously breaching electoral spending limits and taking advantage of a person weakened by ill health.

Bettencourt’s former accountant, Claire Thibout, told police in 2010 that she had handed envelopes filled with cash to Bettencourt’s right-hand man, Patrice de Maistre, on the understanding it was to be passed on to Sarkozy’s campaign treasurer, Eric Woerth.

Investigators suspect up to €4 million ($5.2 million) of Bettencourt’s cash made its way into the coffers of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party.

Sarkozy lost his immunity from prosecution when he was defeated in the 2012 presidential election by Socialist Francois Hollande.

Anyone convicted of exploiting a person’s weakened mental state can be punished by up to three years in prison, a maximum fine of €375,000 ($485,000) and a ban on holding public office for up to five years.

French judges demonstrated their readiness to go after former presidents with their successful pursuit of Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who was convicted in 2011 on corruption charges related to his time as mayor of Paris.

Chirac was excused from attending his trial because of ill health, and was given a two-year suspended prison term.

Since losing to Hollande, Sarkozy has concentrated on making money on the international conference circuit, but he has repeatedly hinted he is considering another tilt at the presidency in 2017.

As well as the Bettencourt case, he faces investigations into alleged cronyism in the awarding of contracts for opinion polls, an illegal police investigation into journalists and alleged kickbacks on a Pakistani arms deal used to finance the right in 1995, when Sarkozy was budget minister.