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L'Oreal heiress at center of Paris trial

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Billionaire court case
  • L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt at center of trial in Paris
  • NEW: Trial postponed while officials investigate new evidence
  • NEW: Attorney for accused says media manipulated against client
  • Her daughter says Bettencourt was cheated out of a billion euros
  • France
  • L'Oreal SA

Paris, France (CNN) -- The trial of a photographer accused of scamming the heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune has been delayed while officials review new evidence that has emerged in the case.

Photographer Francois-Marie Banier went on trial Thursday in Paris, accused of bilking 87-year-old L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt out of a billion euros that she allegedly gave to him. Bettencourt's daughter says her mother is not mentally competent to handle her own affairs and took the case to court to recover the money.

Bettencourt is France's richest woman, according to Radio France International. She and Banier have known each other for years.

Now, Banier's trial is delayed while officials review secret recordings that emerged two weeks ago.

Banier's attorney welcomed the delay. He said that the lawyer for Bettencourt's daughter has manipulated the media to create a negative impression of his client and that time was needed to investigate how the clandestine recordings were obtained.

Two weeks ago, a website published secret recordings, allegedly made by Bettencourt's butler, of conversations between the heiress and her financial adviser. They contain references to a bank account in Switzerland containing 80 million euros ($98.3 million), which had not been reported on Bettencourt's taxes.

The recordings also contain references to payments to two ministers in President Nicolas Sarkozy's government, including French Labor Minister Eric Woerth, who was in charge of reforms to France's retirement system.

The tapes revealed that Woerth's wife was, until last week, the deputy to Bettencourt's financial adviser.

France's Socialists suggest Woerth used his influence to keep the tax authorities from investigating Bettencourt's finances.

Woerth, who is also treasurer of Sarkozy's UMP party, previously worked in the Budget Ministry. His replacement there, Francois Baroin, said he will now investigate Woerth's activities.

Banier's lawyer, Herve Temime, called the case "nauseating" and said, "We are no longer in a fair trial." He called the tapes "a stab in the back" and said he wanted the postponement so he could get to the bottom of the new evidence.

Bettencourt's lawyer, George Kiejman, also said there was no chance of a fair trial, in part because of the vast amount of media attention it has received.

"There was no chance of this trial ever being fair," Kiejman said in court Thursday.

Bettencourt's daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, has tried to bring the case to court several times over the past two and a half years. The trial has been delayed a few times, with a judge at one point ruling Bettencourt was indeed mentally competent.

Banier faces up to three years in prison and a 75,000 euro ($92,000) fine if he's convicted at the trial, which was held at a court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.

CNN's Jim Bittermann and Saskya Vandoorne contributed to this report.