Mar 302011
 


The electric vehicle ‘espionage’ case involving senior executives at Renault has taken two more turns. The two turns, both in the same direction, resulted in an embarrassing climb down for the French automaker.

The company has apologised to the three men it originally fired over allegations that they stole corporate secrets from the carmaker. Meanwhile, the former head of security at Renault, who initially made the claims, was snapped up by police just before an attempt to disappear off to West Africa.

The three executives of Renault, all of whom were involved in the development of electric vehicles, always protested their innocence on all charges. Renault has announced that it is now taking disciplinary action against three of the company’s security officers instead.

Back in January, Renault fired the three top management officials over claims they had been involved in the theft of secret technology for sale to another companies or even another nation. At the time, suspicions were raised that China might have been behind the spy scandal, but they responded with an angry denial, claiming they had nothing to do with the alleged activities.

Police then began a probe of Swiss bank accounts allegedly used by the three executives to launder cash payoffs. At this point, the case had become a huge embarrassment both for Renault and for France.

According to some reports, the scandal allegedly revolved around technical data that competitors could have used to figure out key aspects of Renault’s secret ‘green vehicle’ research and development programme. At the time, it was thought that confidential information on battery specifications had been leaked to a third party.

Renault Fluenze ZE - Renault Electric Car

Renault Fluenze ZE - Renault Electric Car

This information could have been used to determine the size, power and other aspects of both an electric power train and the overall vehicle. In the end, however, investigators were unable to find any evidence to indicate that the three men were guilty of any wrongdoing.

In the last week or so, a number of reports appeared in the media that suggested Renault may have been the victim of an elaborate hoax. It now appears, however, that the automaker has in fact been the target of a sophisticated plan to defraud the company of money.

Carlos Ghosn, CEO at Renault SA, has said he is giving up his bonus to atone for the shocking scandal under his command. His second-in-command at Renault, Patrick Pelata, also tendered his resignation over the matter, but Ghosn declined to accept it, saying it would not be in the carmaker’s best interests.

Michel Balthazard, head of upstream development for Renault and one of the men originally accused, is to have his job reinstated with compensation. Bertrand Rochette, who worked for Balthazard, and Matthieu Tenenbaum, deputy head of Renault’s electric-car programme, will also be reinstated to their former positions.

In addition, bosses at Renault have vowed to restore ‘honour’ to the three men. Ghosn said he will meet with them as soon as possible when he has promised to ‘make reparations’.

After Renault’s board met on Monday, the company issued a statement confirming that all three executives had been ‘wrongly accused’.

The about-turn came after Jean-Claude Marin, the Chief Prosecutor for Paris, said the police investigation had found no merit to the carmaker’s claims. The case alleged by Renault had resulted from verbal allegations the automaker’s security boss Dominique Gevrey received from an unidentified source.

According to Marin, Renault had paid in excess of €300,000 for the information that turned out to be false. The Chief Prosecutor said police were quickly able to ‘rule out’ Renault’s allegations.

Authorities in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, helped French police, quickly found out that the bank accounts through which money had been funnelled to the three executives did not in fact exist. Gevrey was arrested at the airport in Paris on March 11 as he was about to board a plane to Africa.

Gevrey, who used to work for French intelligence, is still refusing to identify his source. He now faces charges in France of ‘organised fraud’.

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