Police detain L'Oreal heiress' friend and advisor

French police investigating L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt detained four men for questioning Thursday, including her financial manager and a friend to whom she gave gifts worth a billion euros.

Celebrity photographer Francois-Marie Banier and financial advisor Patrice de Maistre were among four people formally detained at the Paris office of the financial crimes unit, a judicial source told AFP.

Police have opened three investigations involving Bettencourt, France's richest woman, following allegations of tax evasion and of illegal donations to President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

The heiress' former lawyer, Fabrice Goguel, was also held in custody along with Carlos Vejarano, who runs Arros island in the Seychelles, which is alleged owned by Bettencourt but may have been given to Banier.

The four men are expected to be held for 48 hours, after which police must decide whether to press charges.

Lawyers for Banier and De Maistre declined to comment on the police action and it was not immediately clear to which of the three investigations the detentions were linked.

Sarkozy appeared on television Monday to try to defuse the scandal over allegations that Bettencourt made cash campaign donations through his then fundraiser and current Labour Minister Eric Woerth.

Woerth has strenuously denied the allegations made by Bettencourt's former accountant and Sarkozy has suggested they are part of a smear campaign.

Police searched the homes and offices of several people linked to Bettencourt on Monday, including the Paris apartment of Banier, who is accused by Bettencourt's daughter of taking advantage of her mother's frailty.

Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers has asked a judge to declare her mother incompetent to manage her 17-billion-euro (Dh80.2bn) fortune, having given Banier more than a billion euros worth in gifts during their friendship.

The 87-year-old heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics empire said in a television interview Wednesday that she had ordered an "independent audit" of the companies that manage her wealth.

The multi-layered scandal exploded last month when an investigative website released transcripts of conversations between Bettencourt and her financial advisor that were secretly recorded by the billionairess' butler.

The secret tapes reportedly revealed that Bettencourt plotted to evade taxes. Since then, Bettencourt employees have alleged that she made large cash donations to several right-wing political figures.
 

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