Sarkozy Faces L'Oreal Heiress Corruption Allegations From French Ex-Judge

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PARIS - It may be the clearest sign that the 2012 French presidential campaign is truly underway. The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy vehemently denied Wednesday new accusations by a judge that Sarkozy was directly involved in a corruption scandal that hit his party last year.

In a book entitled ”Sarko m’a tuer,” (Sarko Killed Me) to be published this week in France, Le Monde journalists Gerard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme compiled accounts from 27 French figures who say they were victims of political persecution by the French President, nicknamed "Sarko." Among those interviewed were local officials, journalists and former Prime Minister and long-time Sarkozy nemesis Dominique de Villepin.

But the potentially most explosive comments come from Judge Isabelle Prevost-Desprez, once in charge of investigating allegations involving l’Oreal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt, who was accused last year of illegally financing Sarkozy's center-right UMP party. Prevost-Desprez told the authors that a Bettencourt employee reported witnessing Sarkozy, then a presidential candidate, receiving cash at the billionaire’s house.

Prevost-Desprez, who was taken off the Bettencourt case last year, believes witnesses refused to give the information on the record for fear of reprisal. “One of the witnesses told me that they saw Sarko receiving cash,” the judge says in the book, excerpted Wednesday in Liberazione daily. “I’m sure Metzner (Bettencourt’s daughter’s lawyer) would have made Bettencourt’s nurse testify. She told my clerk: ‘I saw cash being given to Sarkozy but I couldn’t say it in my statement to the judge.”

Bettencourt’s accountant, Claire Thiboult had already brought up these allegations, but more vaguely. "This case was a major risk for (Sarkozy). There was a 90% chance that it would blow up. They had to get me off the case at any cost. They had to drop me,” Prevost-Desprez adds, saying she was put under surveillance before the case was transferred to another judge in the fall of 2010.

A spokesman for Sarkozy denied the judge’s claims, calling them baseless and scandalous.

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Read an interview with the authors in French here.