Sarkozy sites searched in campaign finance probe

Then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy is seen during a television broadcast March 6, 2012, during his failed bid for re-election.
AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 12:41 p.m. ET

(CBS/AP) PARIS - French investigators searched former President Nicolas Sarkozy's home and office on Tuesday as part of a probe into suspected illegal financing of his 2007 presidential campaign by France's richest woman, an official said.

The searches happened while the former president was on vacation in Canada, Sarkozy lawyer Thierry Herzog told the Reuters news agency.

Potential legal troubles have threatened Sarkozy since he lost the presidency to Socialist Francois Hollande in May elections. Sarkozy, who lost his immunity from prosecution June 15, denies wrongdoing.

Judge Jean-Michel Gentil and other investigators from the Paris financial crimes unit conducted Tuesday's search of Sarkozy's home and offices, the official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be publicly named discussing an ongoing investigation.

The probe centers on the finances of L'Oreal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

A long-running family feud over her fortune ballooned in 2010 into a multi-layered investigation and political affair. Allegations emerged that Bettencourt provided illegal campaign cash to Sarkozy's party during the 2007 campaign. Sarkozy has vigorously denied the claims.

The allegations struck a chord with Sarkozy's critics, who were frustrated with Sarkozy's handling of the recession-hit economy and saw him as too cozy with the rich.

An accountant for Bettencourt said in 2010 that she gave euro50,000 in cash in 2007 to Sarkozy's party treasurer for the presidential campaign — well beyond the euro4,600 legal limit on individual donations. A book released last year suggested that Sarkozy himself received undeclared campaign money.

The case also stirred up debate over media freedom. Le Monde filed a lawsuit accusing Sarkozy's office of using counterintelligence services to identify a source leaking information about the investigation. Sarkozy's office said it had never given such instructions to an intelligence agency.

Sarkozy faces other possible legal challenges.

Days after losing his presidential immunity, relatives of French victims of a deadly bombing in Pakistan in 2003 filed a lawsuit accusing Sarkozy and two former advisers of violating a duty to secrecy in an investigation of the attack.

The Karachi car bombing killed 15 people — mostly French defense contractors. Investigators are probing whether a French defense deal in the 1990s with Pakistan involving suspected kickbacks set the stage for the attack. Sarkozy's office insisted the former president, who was budget minister in the 1990s, was not involved in any way.