Ex-minister seeks to justify cash payments in Libyan election funding affair

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The former minister and current senior Member of Parliament Éric Woerth has been questioned by judges investigating claims that Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 presidential election campaign was funded by Muammar Gaddafi's Libyan regime. Woerth, the treasurer of that campaign, sought to play down his role in handling envelopes stuffed full of cash at the election campaign headquarters. But according to a transcript of his evidence, seen by Mediapart, Woerth's explanations weakened his own defence. Fabrice Arfi and Karl Laske report

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The former minister Éric Woerth, who is today chairman of the influential finance committee at the National Assembly, sought to play down his role in the scandal involving Libyan financing of Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign when questioned by judges investigating the affair. During the questioning on May 29th, 2018, Woerth, who was treasurer of that campaign, admitted he had handled anonymous cash donations in envelopes at the campaign headquarter while playing down the sums involved. But according to a transcript of the evidence seen by Mediapart, the former minister's explanations about the cash were often confused and have in reality weakened his own defence.

Éric Woerth, an MP for the conservative Les Républicains, has received the support of the ruling La République en Marche party despite being placed under formal investigation – one step short of charges being brought – for “complicity in illegal financing of an election campaign” in the affair. During questioning by the investigating judges Serge Tournaire and Aude Buresi, the MP himself chose to tackle head on the suspicions that surround his role in it. “I can see that you're thinking there was a lot of cash in this campaign,” he told them.

The judges, who have already put Nicolas Sarkozy under investigation for “illicit funding of an electoral campaign”, “receiving and embezzling public funds” and “passive corruption” in relation to the affair, found it hard to contradict the former campaign treasurer.

Cash payments: senior conservative MP Éric Woerth, seen here in the National Assembly on November 15th, 2017, says envelopes of cash received during the 2007 election campaign came from anonymous donors. © Reuters Cash payments: senior conservative MP Éric Woerth, seen here in the National Assembly on November 15th, 2017, says envelopes of cash received during the 2007 election campaign came from anonymous donors. © Reuters
The investigation, which began back in 2013, has discovered the existence of Libyan money ahead of the 2007 election, in the form of cash and bank transfers to members of the former president's clan. They also found money in the form of a massive amount of undeclared cash that swirled around during the 2007 campaign itself. It is in relation to this latter money that Éric Woerth, whose job was to guarantee the scrupulousness of the candidate's accounts as treasurer, has been targeted by the investigating judges. According to the investigation Woerth is not on the list of Sarkozy supporters suspected of having negotiated secretly with the regime in Tripoli.

When confronted with the investigators' findings – an initial summary report was drawn up in September 2017 - the current chairman of the National Assembly's financial committee accepted the facts as presented. But he went to great lengths to play them down and distance himself from any suspicion of a link with the Libyan allegations. “I see no connection between the Libyan inquiry and these funds,” said Woerth from the start of his questioning.

So in his defence the conservative MP did all he could , as quickly as he could, to downplay what the police had unearthed in the investigation. While he accepted that there were cash funds, it was impossible to know the origin of them as they had been sent anonymously in the post by hidden donors. Nor were there major sums involved, simply a few thousand euros. That was in summary the basis of the evidence given by the MP. He described how during February and April 2007, either at the headquarters of the UMP – the predecessor right-wing party to Les Républicains – or the election campaign HQ they received up to around thirty thousand euros contained in around ten or so envelopes. Some of them were personally addressed to him. He said there were between 1,000 and 5,000 euros in each envelope.

According to the MP, this money was then put into safes before being distributed by hand in the form of an impromptu bonus payment to several members of the campaign team.

The problem with this version of the facts is that much of it collides with reality. Contrary to what Éric Woerth said, none of Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign team, including the person in charge of the post, remembers receiving anonymous cash by mail.

Even worse for his version of events, many former campaign workers have told the investigators about large sums of cash in circulation during the campaign, which does not tally with the thirty thousand or euros so talked about by Woerth. One witness even spoke about “hundreds of envelopes” being in the account safes. Another witness said it was known for sure that there would bonuses even before they signed their contracts, which undermines the idea that these payments were a surprise gift at the end of the campaign.

“I'm a little surprised at these declarations … that doesn't seem very reliable at all. I completely challenge this kind of testimony,” Éric Woerth told the judges.

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