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Monday, March 14, 2011

Renault Security Official to Be Charged as French Police Drop Spy Claims

Renault SA will come under pressure to replace managers after its espionage case against three executives neared collapse, with criminal charges filed against an employee who ran the carmaker’s investigation.

Dominique Gevrey, a Renault security official, was charged yesterday with “organized fraud” over his role in the firing of upstream development chief Michel Balthazard and two other senior managers.

“We’ve said from the start that our client is a victim of slander,” Balthazard’s lawyer Pierre-Olivier Sur said by telephone. “Renault has posed as a victim, first of espionage and now of fraud, but the only victims here are our client and his co-accused.”

Renault dismissed Balthazard, his subordinate Bertrand Rochette and deputy electric-car program chief Matthieu Tenenbaum in January after its investigation concluded they had received payments from Chinese companies via foreign accounts. The case against them was based on verbal information obtained by Gevrey from an undisclosed source, for which Renault paid 250,000 euros ($348,400), company attorney Jean Reinhart said last week.

Chief Operating Officer Patrick Pelata, who took over day- to-day control from Carlos Ghosn in 2008, offered March 4 to resign if all three executives are cleared, saying the company would hold management accountable “all the way up to me.”

“Renault wants the whole truth to come out and will repair any injustice that has been done,” company spokeswoman Frederique Le Greves said by telephone. She declined to comment on whether Pelata would tender his resignation or whether Ghosn would accept it.

Fraud Investigation

Gevrey was jailed yesterday pending a formal fraud investigation that will not examine Renault’s original spying claims, said a Paris court official, who asked not to be identified in accordance with policy.

Ghosn has also come under pressure over the mishandling of the affair. Defending the carmaker’s espionage claims in January, the CEO said he had personally overseen the internal probe and its “multiple” findings against the three executives. “If there were no certainties about this, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” he said on TF1 television.

“If it emerges that the three employees didn’t betray their company, the CEO must take responsibility and apologize publicly, or tender his resignation,” Marc Laffineur, deputy leader of the governing UMP party in the National Assembly, said after the carmaker backed away from its earlier allegations.

Other Renault executives who may face sanctions for their involvement in the espionage investigation and dismissals include Laurence Dors, the company’s general secretary, and Legal Director Christian Husson.

‘Blow to Credibility’

Renault employees expect sanctions against “those responsible for these mess-ups,” the carmaker’s CFDT union said in an open letter addressed to Ghosn.

The affair has “dealt a blow to the credibility of Ghosn and Pelata, who were both directly involved,” Fabien Gache, a spokesman for Renault’s main CGT union, said March 4.

Balthazard, Rochette and Tenenbaum have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and filed criminal defamation claims.

Tenenbaum “is waiting to hear what Renault has to propose” and doesn’t rule out returning to work, his lawyer Thibault de Montbrial said. “First of all we’re waiting for an official declaration of his innocence, since the prejudice he has suffered increases with every day that passes.”

Renault had last week publicly ordered Gevrey to reveal the source of the banking information, after police found no trace of the alleged accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, where legal authorities cooperated with the investigation.

His colleague Marc Tixador and Security Director Remi Pagnie were also questioned by police over the weekend and released without charge. Gevrey, a former French intelligence agent, was arrested March 11 at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport as he prepared to board a flight to an African country, the court official said.

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