February 23, 2016 / 3:41 PM / 2 years ago

Former top Sarkozy aide under investigation in polls case

PARIS (Reuters) - A former top aide to Nicolas Sarkozy was placed under judicial investigation on Tuesday over opinion polls paid for with public funds - one of several alleged scandals that could imperil the French ex-president’s hopes of a political comeback.

Former French Minister Claude Gueant leaves the court after a suspension in his trial in Paris, France, September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

Claude Gueant, who was secretary-general of the presidency and later interior minister under Sarkozy, is accused by an investigating magistrate of being an accomplice to favoritism.

Being placed under investigation is the first formal step that can lead to a trial, but it does not automatically lead to a prosecution.

“I am convinced that I did not do anything wrong,” Gueant said on BFM TV on Monday evening.

The ex-head of Sarkozy’s private office, Emmanuelle Mignon, is already under investigation for alleged favoritism, abuse of public funds and destruction of public archives in connection with the polls and communication services ordered from his then-political advisers, Patrick Buisson and Pierre Giacometti.

The investigation was launched in response to a complaint by a civil society watchdog association, Anticor, which alleges that most of the polls commissioned without a tender in 2007-09 had nothing to do with the president’s official functions.

Sarkozy was placed under investigation on Feb. 16 over irregularities in his 2012 election campaign finances, further complicating his re-election bid at a time when he is already lagging main rival Alain Juppe in the race for his conservative party’s nomination.

Sarkozy enjoys immunity from prosecution for alleged offences committed while in office, unless they are serious enough to warrant trial before a specially constituted Court of Justice of the Republic.

However, it would be politically embarrassing for him if former senior aides were on trial for allegedly abusing public money to conduct polling on personal matters such as the image of his singer wife Carla Bruni, a former supermodel.

Gueant was convicted last year of receiving illegal cash payments while working as an adviser to Sarkozy in the interior ministry in 2002-04. He was given a two-year suspended prison sentence, a 75,000-euro ($82,620) fine and barred from public office for five years. He is appealing against the verdict.

Reporting by Myriam Rivet; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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