Bettencourt affair heats up with raids, reports

* Wealth manager targeted in donations investigation

* Patrice de Maistre’s lawyer says searches not surprising

* French weekly unveils cash withdrawals before election

By Gerard Bon

PARIS, July 9 (BestGrowthStock) – French authorities on Friday
searched the home and offices of the wealth manager of France’s
richest woman, a police source said, the latest twist in a saga
which has rocked President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government.

Police are investigating whether L’Oreal (OREP.PA: ) heiress
Liliane Bettencourt and her late husband made illegal campaign
donations to conservative politicians.

The lawyer of Patrice de Maistre, Bettencourt’s wealth
manager, said such searches were to be expected given the scale
of the investigation.

The inquiry was ordered after the former bookkeeper of
Liliane Bettencourt alleged she had routinely withdrawn cash
destined for illegal donations.

“When you have an investigation of this size, several
investigations, this type of search is not surprising,” Pascal
Wilhelm told Reuters.

The bookkeeper, Claire Thibout, said during police
questioning on Wednesday evening and Thursday that de Maistre
asked her to withdraw 50,000 euros in cash as part of an
indirect illegal donation for Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.

She alleged that this amount was added to cash from
Switzerland and given to Labour Minister Eric Woerth, treasurer
of the ruling centre-right UMP party.

De Maistre has denied the allegations.

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French weekly magazine Marianne on Friday said more than
390,000 euros in cash had been withdrawn from Bettencourt’s
account in the four months before the 2007 election, citing the
former bookkeeper’s ledgers.

Thibout on Thursday denied naming Sarkozy as a direct
recipient, saying a website which published an interview with
her misquoted her.

Government officials quickly said on Thursday her retraction
exonerated the head of state.

The scandal, which started as a family feud, has led for
calls for Sarkozy to address the nation and reshuffle the
government, along with demands for Woerth to step down.
(Writing by Victoria Bryan; Editing by Charles Dick)

Bettencourt affair heats up with raids, reports