Renault executives deny espionage charge

12th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Three Renault executives suspected of spying on the French carmaker have denied the accusations, after China angrily dismissed allegations that it was involved in the scandal.

"Renault is making very serious accusations against me which I totally refute. The facts were outlined to me and I refute them as well," one of the executives, Michel Balthazard, told reporters.

He made the denial after he was summoned to a meeting with Renault bosses along with two other senior managers suspected of industrial espionage, reportedly involving the company's electric car programme.

"Today, I consider myself the victim of an affair that is beyond me," said Balthazard, promising to cooperate with any investigation.

Matthieu Tenenbaum, the joint head of Renault's electric vehicles programme, said through his lawyer that he was still waiting to hear exactly what he was accused of having done.

His lawyer, Thibault de Montbrial, on Tuesday alleged that an anonymous letter was at the heart of the allegations.

His client was accused "on the basis of an anonymous letter... (that) indicated, conditionally, in an indirect and implicit way, that he had received bribes and committed unethical acts."

Bertrand Rochette, the third man suspended by Renault, also said he had nothing to do with the affair. Rochette, who worked as a deputy to Balthazard's number two, said he was "living a nightmare".

Renault meanwhile issued a statement outlining the action it would be taking on Wednesday, but provided few details.

"Renault will file a complaint tomorrow," the company said. "From this date, the facts of this case will therefore be in the courts' hands."

The company said it had met the three managers "in conformity with labour legislation" in a "discussion in advance of a decision of dismissal for serious offences".

Renault last week suspended the three executives over suspicions they had leaked strategic information. Reports said the secrets concerned details of the company's electric cars.

Le Figaro newspaper reported on Tuesday that a Chinese firm had paid undisclosed sums into Swiss and Liechtenstein bank accounts opened by two Renault executives implicated in the inquiry.

But Chinese officials angrily rejected such claims.

"As for this so-called story that China is involved, we believe this is totally groundless, irresponsible and unacceptable," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters on Tuesday.

The reports of a Chinese bid to obtain Renault's secrets follow a long history of similar allegations widely attributed to Beijing's goal of closing the technology gap with the West.

French government spokesman Francois Baroin has insisted Paris is not pointing the finger at any country in the affair.

"It is a process of inquiry," Baroin told Europe 1 radio. "Renault, like others, is the victim of an economic intelligence war."

Officials have said French intelligence services are monitoring the case.

The firm says it did not lose any major trade secrets in the affair and has not commented on allegations about China.

Renault number two Patrick Pelata told Saturday's Le Monde daily that its inquiries showed it had been targeted by an "organised international network".

Le Figaro, which did not identify its sources, reported that private investigators hired by Renault uncovered a Swiss bank account containing 500,000 euros ($646,000) and another in Liechtenstein with 130,000 euros.

It said the money had been paid in by a Chinese power company.

In what appeared to be a bid to hide the payments, the cash was moved via a series of intermediary transfers via Shanghai and Malta.

Renault and its Japanese partner Nissan have staked their future on electric vehicles and plan to launch several models by 2014 to meet rapidly rising demand for more environmentally friendly methods of transport.

They have invested four billion euros in the programme.

© 2011 AFP

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