A public prosecutor extended the custody of four men close to France's richest woman for 24 hours to enable further questioning about suspected tax evasion and money laundering, a spokeswoman said on Friday.
Francois-Marie Banier, a close friend of L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, Patrice de Maistre, her wealth manager, Fabrice Goguel, her tax lawyer, and Carlos Vejarano, the manager of a property in the Seychelles islands, were being questioned at the headquarters of the financial crimes division.
The affair has embarrassed President Nicolas Sarkozy's government because of allegations by Bettencourt's former bookkeeper that the billionaire and her late husband made numerous illegal cash donations to conservative politicians.
After holding a suspect for a maximum 48 hours in custody, the public prosecutor can either send him for trial, appoint an independent magistrate to investigate the case, or release him while the police investigation continues.
Nanterre public prosecutor Philippe Courroye, a personal friend of Sarkozy, is under pressure from magistrates' unions, the left-wing opposition and the media to demonstrate judicial independence by launching prosecutions in the Bettencourt affair.
Former investigating magistrate Eva Joly, now a member of the European Parliament for the Greens, accused him in media interviews of being "under orders from the powers that be".
Joly, who cracked some of France's biggest politico-financial scandals of the 1990s, said Courroye was going through the motions of investigating the case while trying to spare the government embarrassment.
Courroye has ordered three preliminary investigations into suspected laundering of the proceeds of tax evasion, invasion of privacy over the secret recordings, and the bookkeeper's allegations of an illegal donation to Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.
So far, no one has been charged with any offence.
Banier, a society photographer, is facing trial separately on charges of abusing 87-year-old Bettencourt's infirmity to obtain gifts estimated at up to 1 billion euros ($1.28 billion).
Secret recordings made by a former butler in Bettencourt's household, of which transcripts were published by French media last month, appeared to show her advisers discussing undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland and an island in the Seychelles, acquired through a bank in Liechtenstein.
ReutersGüncelleme Tarihi: 16 Temmuz 2010, 13:20