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GM charges Lopez stole secrets


OKLAHOMA CITY -- General Motors Corp. said yesterday that it had asked German law enforcement officials to take criminal action against the former head of its global purchasing operations, Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua, because it believes Mr. Lopez and others took confidential documents when they left the company several weeks ago.

Mr. Lopez, an engineer who helped revive GM's European operations in the 1980s before being transferred to Detroit, stunned the automotive world when he resigned after nine months in the United States. He left GM to become a top executive with Volkswagen AG, Germany's largest automaker and one of GM's biggest competitors in Europe.

Six other GM executives, three from Detroit and three from the company's Adam Opel AG division in Europe, followed Mr. Lopez to Volkswagen later in March. The defections prompted General Motors to obtain a court injunction blocking VW and Mr. Lopez from "systematically hiring" GM executives.

At a news conference yesterday after GM's annual shareholders meeting in Oklahoma City, Louis Hughes, president of GM's European operations, told reporters the latest action was directed specifically against Mr. Lopez and an unspecified number of others who GM believes unlawfully took confidential documents.

GM was pursuing "a criminal action against Mr. Lopez and other people for what we believe to be the taking away of some confidential documents," Mr. Hughes said. "That is now a matter for the state or legal authorities in Germany."

Mr. Lopez attended a lengthy meeting of GM's European strategy board a week before he quit GM to join Europe's largest automaker, theAssociated Press reported. GM's product plans for the next decade were discussed at the meeting.

The GM officials would not discuss any other aspects of their action against the former executives nor would the officials say what documents the executives were accused of taking.

A spokeswoman for Volkswagen of America said the company had "no information" about GM's action against Mr. Lopez and did not comment further.

The auto giant's move against Mr. Lopez adds a new, darker -- and highly personal -- element to the story of a career that until Mr. Lopez's resignation in March bore all the signs of a meteoric rise by a bona fide outsider and maverick in one of the world's biggest corporate bureaucracies.

John F. Smith Jr., GM's president and chief executive, was asked for his reaction to having his relationship with Mr. Lopez dissolve from trust to criminal accusations. He replied grimly, "It's a tragedy."

John G. Smale, GM's chairman, who appeared with Mr. Smith and five senior GM executives at the news conference yesterday, sought to play down the impact of the upheaval from Mr. Lopez's ragged departure.

"The programs are still in place," Mr. Smale said. Mr. Smith added that his goal was to get GM's North American car business to "run with the best in the pack" within three or four years.

Mr. Lopez, 52, a native of the Basque region of Spain, has a doctorate in industrial engineering. He used rigorous methods to improve efficiency in parts manufacturing, cutting GM's costs for the components it buys from outsiders as well as those made by its parts-making divisions.

Known by the nickname "Inaki," Mr. Lopez had a reputation as a charismatic leader who exhorted his staff of cost-cutters to follow his "warrior's diet" of fruits and vegetables while shunning meat, french fries, doughnuts and other fast-food fare. He insisted that they shift their wristwatches to the other arm as a reminder that they were trying to instill change.

Persuaded to leave GM by Volkswagen's new chairman, Ferdinand Piech, Mr. Lopez disclosed his plans March 12. Mr. Smith, whom Mr. Lopez considered a close friend and mentor, then offered to increase Mr. Lopez's power, giving him control of GM's battered North American business.

At first, Mr. Lopez agreed to stay but then he abruptly reversed himself, delivering a handwritten note to Mr. Smith March 15, only hours before Mr. Smith intended to announce that Mr. Lopez would become president of GM's North American operations.

One of Mr. Smith's first acts when he was elevated to the presidency of GM a year ago was to recruit Mr. Lopez from GM Europe and put him in charge of worldwide purchasing for GM in Detroit.

William G. Hoglund, an executive vice president of GM and its North American chief, told shareholders yesterday that the operation had pared its materials costs by 3.1 percent last year, and expected to lower them 6 percent this year. Mr. Lopez has not said what led him to leave GM. At Volkswagen, he is a high-ranking member of the management board and heads worldwide product optimization and procurement.

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