An embarrassed Renault on March 24 apologized to three top managers it fired for allegedly selling secrets of its key electric car program to China after it emerged the French carmaker may have been the victim of fraud.

Renault boss Carlos Ghosn and operations chief Patrick Pelata "apologize and express deep regret, personally and in Renault's name," to the three employees who were "wrongly accused", the company said.

Renault officials quickly sacked the three in Janauary, saying publicly they had proof they had been selling secrets on the electric technology which is expected to change the car industry.

The French government had branded the affair "economic warfare" and some pointed the finger at China, drawing an angry denial from Beijing.

Ghosn and Pelata said on March 14 they would meet with the managers concerned as soon as possible and "make reparations" after revelations that the source of information alleging the spying may have been a fraudster.

The car manufacturer said it would be a civil party in an investigation into alleged fraud by an organized gang announced by Paris prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin earlier on March 14, apparently spurring the apology. "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 detained on March 11 and March 12 for questioning in the affair. Two of them were later released without charge and the third, Dominique Gevrey, a Renault security manager, may face fraud charges over the espionage charges that rocked Renault in January.

But the scandal returned to haunt Renault again when a source close to investigations said this month that the claims had led nowhere after police found no trace of bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein that the accused men were alleged to have held.

Investigators detained Gevrey as he was about to board a plane for Guinea despite the fact that Renault had declined his holiday request. "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. Renault has already spent 310,000 euros for information on the spying allegations, funds believed partially held in Spain and Dubai that investigators are trying to trace, the prosecutor said. "Renault had almost 400,000 euros waiting, as asked for by Gevrey or the intermediary," Marin said. "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."

Another top manager was sacked for similar reasons over a year ago after he was accused of having opened a bank account in his wife's maiden name in the southeastern city of Grenoble. "There also, investigations showed that the manager did not have an account in Grenoble," Marin said.

Nevertheless, the prosecutor said that it was still possible that Renault had been the victim of industrial espionage or simply of a bid to destabilize the car manufacturer.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011

See Also

Renault Executive Denies Spy Claims

Renault Says Espionage Threatened 'Strategic Assets