03-04-2011, 02:54 PM
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Will case bring down CEO Carlos Ghosn?
What appeared to be a major case of China espionage may actually be nothing more than what some are now describing as a “malevolent hoax,” the result of angry office politics at French automaker Renault.
An investigation by the French equivalent of the FBI has found no evidence that Renault employees were on the payroll of Chinese spymasters. The report that could prove seriously embarrassing to both the maker and its outspoken CEO Carlos Ghosn, whose career could now be in jeopardy, according to some observers.
The incident made headlines, last October, when a Renault committee received an anonymous “ethical alert” indicating three of its employees might have been getting cash for leaking details of the maker’s aggressive electric vehicle program to foreign interests. Renault – along with Japanese alliance partner Nissan – is launching an array of battery vehicles and planning to expand production to more than 500,000 vehicles a year by mid-decade.
On January 3rd, the French maker suspended three executives, one of whom sat on its management committee. The maker also said it would take legal action, which French government officials feared might set off an economic war with China.
But others hailed Renault’s aggressive response. There have been numerous indications that Chinese businesses and the government – which often holds a stake in China’s major manufacturers – have been actively engaged in spying, efforts that may include the extensive use of computer hackers.
Within days of the allegations, the French Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence, or DCRI, begins an investigation, looking into Renault’s charges that a spy network could have tapped into critical data on its electric vehicle program – though the maker reports that critical technology data remain safe.
Bertrand Rochette, the second-in-command of Renault’s advanced engineering operations, insists he is “amazed” by the claims. His boss, Michel Balthazard, as well as the deputy director of EV operations, Matthieu Tennenbaum, also deny wrongdoing.
And now, counter-intelligence officials believe, there was no spying. If anything, the letter that touched off the investigation may have been constructed as part of office politics aimed at ruining the careers of the accused executives.
During a meeting with government officials, Renault’s management was advised two, and very possibly all three of the accused executives are entirely innocent.
The situation could prove “untenable” for CEO Ghosn, according to French media reports. The executive was outspoken in his comments about the alleged spying, earlier insisting the maker had evidence supporting “the gravity of the affair.”
But Renault has come in for criticism for initially trying to conduct its own investigation, rather than going to the DCRI. Making matters worse, the numbers of supposed Swiss bank accounts allegedly set up for the accused company employees don’t exist, according to the government investigation.
Nonetheless, the investigation continues, according to Jean Reinhart, Renault’s lawyer, who declared, “I refute the term manipulation,” when asked about the findings of the DCRI. “We have no information that leads us … to say that the scenario of espionage does not exist.”
For his part, Rochette says it is time for Renault “to stop acting like a victim.”