The financial adviser to the heiress of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire was detained for questioning Thursday along with three others, amid a scandal over her fortune that has embroiled the French government.
Patrice de Maistre, financial adviser to 87-year-old Liliane Bettencourt, was being questioned Thursday by investigators, according to an official in the prosecutor's office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.
Another person being held is photographer Francois-Marie Banier, who is accused by Bettencourt's daughter of taking advantage of her aging mother's weakened mental faculties to bilk her out of (EURO)1 billion.
Bettencourt's finances have been at the center of a political storm that includes claims she gave money illegally to President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party during his 2007 election campaign. Sarkozy and his party's treasurer have denied the claims, which are unproven.
The questioning of four men close to Bettencourt had to do with another aspect of the multifaceted case _ a preliminary investigation into Bettencourt's finances, including suspicions of tax evasion, said the official, who was not authorized to be publicly named because of judicial policy.
Bettencourt is No. 17 on Forbes magazine's list of the richest people worldwide, with a net worth of $20 billion.
The tax scandal has embarrassed the government because the wife of Labor Minister Eric Woerth worked for a company handling Bettencourt's finances. Until March, Woerth was budget minister, leading a high-profile crackdown on tax dodgers. The couple denied any conflict of interest, and a French financial inspection agency has said Woerth did not intervene in Bettencourt's tax files.
The investigation by prosecutors stemmed from secret recordings made by one of Bettencourt's former butlers.
He taped the heiress' conversations with her advisers _ with topics ranging from secret Swiss bank accounts to what appeared to be her gift of a luxury island to a friend, Banier.
In alleged excerpts of the recordings, released to French media, financial adviser Maistre tells Bettencourt he is thinking about transferring money out of accounts in Switzerland to Singapore, Hong Kong or Uruguay, noting that French tax authorities are cracking down on people with Swiss bank accounts.
Once the recordings became public, Maistre acknowledged that the L'Oreal SA heiress had (EURO)78 million ($97 million) in two foreign accounts, and he promised to get her affairs in order.
In the recordings, he also allegedly spoke about the island in the Seychelles, suggesting the heiress had not paid taxes on it and that it had been given to Banier. Lawyers for Banier and Maistre did not immediately return calls seeking comment Thursday.
The butler's lawyer, Antoine Gillot, has vouched for the recordings' authenticity.
Bettencourt's former tax lawyer Fabrice Goguel and the luxury island's manager, Carles Vejarano, were also being held for questioning Thursday, the official said.
Meanwhile, Bettencourt is in a dispute with her daughter over whether she still has enough mental faculties to control her fortune. The heiress said in a statement Wednesday that she is seeking an independent audit of her finances to show that she knows "perfectly how to manage" her family's affairs.
The daughter has insisted she only wants to protect her aging mother. Meanwhile, Bettencourt told France-3 television that her daughter's reaction was "petty."
"Let her worry about herself," she said.