French conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon was preliminarily charged and put under investigation Tuesday over wages his wife and children received for parliamentary jobs they allegedly never did.
Magistrates announced that the Parliament member and former prime minister would face questioning on fraud allegations including that he misappropriated public funds. It is the first time a French presidential candidate has been formally charged during a campaign.
Under French law, the court's move is similar to an arraignment in the U.S. Investigators have found solid grounds for the case to be pursued but want more time to decide whether the case should go to trial.
The case centers on claims that Fillon put his British-born wife, Penelope, and two of his five children on the public payroll for jobs that didn't exist. Le Canard Enchaine, a French satirical newspaper, alleged the payments over more than a decade amounted to about $900,000.
Fillon, 63, has denied any wrongdoing. It is not illegal for lawmakers to employ relatives, and his wife and children say they performed the work.
In February, Fillon said that if judges found enough evidence to formally put him under investigation, he would pull out of the presidential race. Since then he has vowed to continue and "let the voters decide," while attacking the press, the judiciary and the government and sasying he is the victim of a witch hunt.
He announced last week he had been warned that the case was not being dropped.
On Tuesday, he refused to answer questions from the panel of three judges and instead read a statement denying the charges.
Fillon is the candidate of the center-right opposition Republicans, winning the party's primary on a platform that said presidential candidates must be "beyond reproach." He was heavily favored to become the president.
But since the scandal, known as Penelopegate, broke in late January, his popularity has been on the decline. Polls put him in third place behind the far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild banker who had served as economy minister.
On Tuesday, the daily Le Parisien reported that part of the wages paid to his children, who were law students during the time he said they worked for him, had been transferred back to their parents' bank account. The newspaper said daughter Marie told police this was to repay part of the cost of her 2006 wedding at the family's 12th century chateau in western France, and her brother Charles said he was repaying his parents for "back rent and pocket money."
Penelope Fillon has been summoned to appear before the court on March 28 and may also be formally put under investigation.
Francois Fillon's campaign has been hit by other scandals: Le Canard Enchaine reported he had failed to declare a $68,800 loan from a friend, and last weekend the Journal du Dimanche reported that an unnamed benefactor had paid for his tailor-made suits.
Le Pen, who is favored to win the first round of the two-round presidential election, is also under investigation, facing questioning over whether she illegally spent European Parliament funds on National Front staff.
If elected president, a candidate is granted immunity from prosecution while in office.
4:29 p.m.: This article was updated with background about the scandal.