PARIS (Reuters) - A senior official in France's UMP party acknowledged on Monday that "anomalies" had occurred to cover the costs of Nicolas Sarkozy's failed 2012 election campaign, in a scandal that threatens to damage the party.
The affair could end up affecting the party's choice of its next presidential candidate, and complicate Sarkozy's efforts to run again in three years.
"There have been anomalies," Jerome Lavrilleux, a deputy director of Sarkozy's presidential campaign, told BFM TV with tears in his eyes. Neither Sarkozy nor UMP Chairman Jean-Francois Cope were informed of the "drift" in campaign finances, he said, and had nothing to do with the "anomalies".
"There was no wrongdoing, there was a terrible spiral, a train going at high speed and people who should have pulled the emergency alarm and didn't, and I was probably one of them," Lavrilleux said.
His comments came after police searched the UMP offices, and followed accusations by a lawyer for event organizer Bygmalion that the UMP had ordered fake invoices to cover campaign costs. Some expenses were listed as "other operations" because costs had "exploded" well beyond a legal ceiling, Lavrilleux said.
Cope, a Sarkozy ally who was party general secretary during the campaign, is expected to face challenges to his leadership at a closed-door meeting of senior UMP officials on Tuesday.
Sarkozy himself is widely tipped to be preparing a comeback, but he could face challenges from other top conservatives including Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe.
Patrick Maisonneuve, the lawyer for Bygmalion, told BFM TV: "This has been called the Bygmalion affair, but in fact it's about the Sarkozy campaign accounts."
He said the faked invoices totaled around 11 million euros ($15 million).
Maisonneuve alleged that UMP officials had made clear to Bygmalion staff at the time that if they did not comply they would not get paid, accusing the party of "financial blackmail". He declined to identify anyone by name.
Cope faces growing speculation that he will have to step down after the newspaper Liberation reported this month the UMP paid some 20 million euros to a unit of Bygmalion, founded by two associates of Cope, to organize campaign events.
The newspaper said it was not clear whether some of them had actually taken place. A preliminary investigation into the accusations was opened earlier this year.
Cope earlier on Monday denied knowledge of any wrongdoing, saying that he had been busy organizing the campaign of Sarkozy, who was ultimately defeated by Francois Hollande.
"It was natural for me to trust the people charged with that," he told BFM TV of the UMP party's accounts. "I didn't think my job was to be looking over their shoulders."
Cope's position was already weakened by the poor result of the UMP in Sunday's European Parliament elections, where it was beaten into second place by the far-right National Front.
"I do not see how he can remain in charge," said UMP deputy Lionel Tardy, an ally of Fillon, a former prime minister who has made no secret of his ambition to take over the running of the UMP.
Police also searched the offices of Bygmalion and a think-tank run by Cope on Monday, a source close to the investigation said.
(Reporting by Chine Labbe, Ingrid Melander and Mark John; Editing by Larry King)