Renault says sorry to execs over false spy claims

French carmaker Renault - RENA.PA made a public apology to three executives accused of industrial espionage after the Paris prosecutor said the trio had no case to answer.

Bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, alleged to have belonged to the executives and seen as key to the case over Renault's electric car technology, did not exist, prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin told a news conference on Monday.

The response of authorities in those countries has enabled the prosecutor "to dismiss a certain number of theories, notably that which was put forward in the initial complaint by the company Renault," Marin said.

Renault chief executive Carlos Ghosn and chief operating officer Patrick Pelata apologized to the three men following Marin's comments, pledging to repair the injustice against them after they were fired in January.

Bertrand Rochette, Matthieu Tenenbaum and Michel Balthazard had denied any wrongdoing from the start and have taken legal action against the carmaker.

"They (Ghosn and Pelata) are committed that reparations be made to the three executives, and that their honor in the public eye be restored," Renault said in a statement.

Ghosn refused to accept Pelata's resignation over the affair at a special board meeting on Monday, but both executives said they would give up their 2010 bonuses and profits on their 2011 stock options.

Pelata had hinted his job may be at risk when the case began to unravel, saying Renault would accept all the consequences "up to the highest level of the company, that is to say up to myself."

French finance minister Christine Lagarde had also said the 15-percent state-owned carmaker would have to take the consequences if the case proved unfounded.

Ghosn's right-hand man, Pelata joined Renault in 1984 as a workshop manager at the Flins plant near Paris and rose swiftly through the ranks.

Under fire

The Paris prosecutor said the investigation was now focusing on whether Renault was the victim of fraud as no evidence had emerged backing its complaint of espionage.

Marin said Renault had already paid 310,000 euros for false information and had 390,000 euros more to pay.

"Renault is pressing charges, and has filed for a civil action, in the case of organized fraud," Renault said.

Renault came under fire for carrying out its own investigation into suspected spying before informing the authorities of its fears.

The case briefly caused tensions with China after a government source said investigators were following up a possible link with China before a formal inquiry was launched.

Renault and the government subsequently played down talk of the link and China angrily denied any involvement.

A Renault security manager was on Sunday placed under investigation for suspected fraud concerning the spying allegations.

One analyst, who asked not to be named, said Pelata was "not necessarily irreplaceable, but it would still be a significant shock" if he stood down over the affair.

Spy thrillers

Renault's botched spying allegations rekindled memories in France of one the most embarrassing episodes in the history of the Fifth Republic, the 1979 "sniffer plane" scam.

In that case, the Elf oil firm (now part of Total - TOTF.PA) was swindled out of large sums to develop a plane designed to sniff out oil deposits which turned out to be a hoax.

In 2008, Deutsche Telekom was embarrassed by the disclosure that it had snooped on its staff by illegally monitoring phone call records and had targeted board members and journalists.

But in June, German prosecutors dropped proceedings against the company's former chairman and chief executive.

(Published by Reuters - March 14, 2011)

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