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Renault Has Doubts About Corporate Espionage Case

March 6, 2011

The Wall Street Journal, 5 March 2011: A top Renault SA official said the French auto maker is no longer certain that its electric-car development efforts were the target of corporate espionage, throwing doubts on a high-profile case that cost three executives their jobs and led the Chinese Foreign Ministry to issue an angry denial of any involvement.

Patrick Pélata, the auto maker’s chief operating officer, made the admission in comments that were published Thursday evening on a French newspaper’s website. He said the auto maker could have been “tricked” into bringing allegations against three senior managers. His comments added to the mystery of a case that was never fully fleshed out.

In January, Renault had accused three managers of taking bribes in exchange for divulging information related to the company’s economic model for electric vehicles, according to their lawyers. All three have denied the accusations, and have filed counter-suits demanding more information about the accusations they face.

That same month, a person familiar with the matter said Chinese interests may have been behind the matter. The Chinese government called such statements “groundless and irresponsible.” Renault never suggested a Chinese link.

“A certain number of factors lead us to doubt” that there ever was a leak of information, he told Paris newspaper Figaro. Mr. Pélata said that either someone in the company’s security service unit is covering things up, or the company was the “victim of a trick whose nature we don’t know, but which could take the form of a fraud.” A Renault spokeswoman confirmed his comments.

Renault filed an anonymous complaint with the state prosecutor in Paris in January and the French intelligence service was put on the case. But the company never publicly detailed exactly what the three were supposed to have done.

Mr. Pélata said that if Renault is mistaken over its accusations of espionage, and if all the doubts are cleared, “we will propose the reinstatement of the three managers.” He added that whatever had happened, the company was a victim, either of an elaborate and sophisticated espionage or misled by an anonymous tipster.

It was the first time a Renault official has expressed such doubts in a case that cast a cloud over its return to profitability and record vehicle sales in 2010.

The three managers included the former vice president of advanced engineering, Michel Balthazard, a member of Renault’s management committee who had worked at the company for three decades. The other two were Bertrand Rochette, Mr. Balthazard’s deputy, and Matthieu Tenenbaum, who was deputy director of the electric vehicles program. The three men have declined repeated requests for comment.

Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn went on national TV in January to say that the company had “multiple” pieces of evidence of wrongdoing. And Mr. Pélata said in January that Renault had been the victim of an international network aimed at stealing strategic information.

In the interview published Thursday, Mr. Pélata explained that the company had received a letter from an anonymous tipster last August that led the investigation to the three managers. The company ceased its investigation at the end of December and turned it over to French authorities, he said.

Renault and its Japanese partner Nissan Motor Co., of which Mr. Ghosn is also CEO, hope to turn electric cars into a mass market product in coming years. But the vehicles are still seen as products for the future: Nissan released its Leaf last year, and Renault is planning to release three electric car models this year.

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