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Hasty Renault apologizes to managers sacked in sham spy scandal

Anyone who watches spy films knows: Beware the double agent. Perhaps Renault's bosses were too busy making cars to buff up on Bond. It seems the firm wasn't the victim of international industrial espionage, but of a con.

The Renault logo and name

Renault admitted it had been duped and had acted too quickly

Renault issued a profuse and somewhat embarrassed apology Monday to three managers it sacked after the French automaker "wrongly accused" them of selling electric car secrets to China.

Public investigations into the incident now suggest that the managers did nothing wrong and that Renault fell for a hoax.

Paris prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin, charged with seeking out the foreign bank accounts into which the managers supposedly funneled massive payments from one of Renault's Chinese rivals, discovered that the alleged offshore holdings didn't exist.

However, the money Renault paid to its seemingly unreliable snitch, 310,000 euros ($433,000) with another 390,000 outstanding, was real.

The plot thickens

"We are looking at possible fraud," Marin told journalists. "It seems that Renault was perhaps not the victim of indelicate employees, but of possible confidence tricksters."

The prosecutor's probe came after three people were arrested over the weekend for questioning in the affair. One of them, a Renault security manager named Dominique Gevrey, may face fraud charges over the alleged espionage scandal.

A security deposit box with a Swiss flag

Gevrey said the managers had hidden Chinese payments in Swiss accounts

"He said he would reveal during the investigation the identity of the source and the bank accounts, but all his explanations so far have turned out to be false or inaccurate," Marin said of Gevrey

French investigators detained Gevrey, who may not have acted alone, as he was about to board a plane for Guinea, despite the fact that Renault had refused his holiday request.

"Gevrey said that his source could give him the forms with signatures opening these accounts [in Switzerland and Liechtenstein] in exchange for the modest sum of 924,000 euros."

Reversing out of trouble

Renault's Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn and Chief Operating Officer Patrick Pelata apologized to the three former managers in light of the new evidence, pledging to do all they could to compensate them for their high-profile dismissal in January.

"[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.

After the meeting, Pelata even said he would have been prepared to resign over the issue.

Dismissed managers Bertrand Rochette, Matthieu Tenenbaum and Michel Balthazard had protested their innocence from the start, and have taken legal action against their former employer.

Renault officials quickly sacked the trio in January, having launched an independent investigation largely without soliciting outside help. Ghosn publicly said the car giant had "multiple pieces of evidence" to back up their decision, though the chief executive later confessed that he had not personally overseen the inquiries.

New investigation

Even the French government weighed in on the apparent theft of strategically important information pertaining to Renault's electric car program, with one government spokesman branding the make-believe theft part of "a war of economic intelligence."

Renault factory

Renault now wants to sue its informant

Ghosn and Pelata said after Renault's Monday meeting that they would meet with the managers as soon as possible to "apologize and express deep regret, personally and in Renault's name."

Meanwhile, the French car giant will be seeking a fresh civil court case, this time against possible con man Gevrey and any potential accomplices.

Author: Mark Hallam (AFP, Reuters)

Editor: David Levitz

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