BONN, Germany -- German prosecutors searched the offices of Volkswagen AG yesterday, looking for proprietary information that might have been taken from General Motors Corp. by VW's embattled chief of production and purchasing, Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua.
The searches, which began yesterday morning, come as support for Mr. Lopez within Volkswagen appeared to be softening. Klaus Liesen, the company's supervisory-board chairman, indicated in an interview published yesterday that his support for Mr. Lopez was not unconditional.
That contrasted with the stance of Ferdinand Piech, chairman of VW's managing board, which runs the company. Mr. Piech has said that he would stand by Mr. Lopez unless he was convicted of a crime.
Such a process could take years, and at this point, no criminal charges have been filed in the case. Still, there was widespread speculation in the German automotive industry that if Mr. Lopez were to be dismissed, Mr. Piech would be removed as well.
Mr. Liesen, in the interview published in Die Zeit of Hamburg, Germany's leading weekly paper, said: "I will put my hand in the fire for no one -- and I have never done that up to now -- as long as an investigation is under way and I am responsible for the investigation being carried out objectively and coming to an unequivocal result."
His remarks were made three months after the Darmstadt prosecutor's office opened an investigation into GM's allegations that Mr. Lopez and seven other former GM employees committed industrial espionage at the time they jumped to Volkswagen last spring.
The interview in Die Zeit followed an article a week and a half earlier in the news magazine Der Spiegel saying that Volkswagen, despite its public backing of Mr. Lopez, was
considering his dismissal.
The automaker has vehemently denied the industrial-espionage charges at the same time it has supported Mr. Lopez, whose cost-cutting abilities it badly needs. Volkswagen, Europe's largest automaker, has reported enormous losses this year.
The searches yesterday indicated that the prosecutor's investigation might be expanding to charges by GM and its German subsidiary, Adam Opel AG, that Mr. Lopez and his colleagues took both secret plans for a new compact car and detailed lists of supplier prices for about 60,000 auto parts.
Georg Nauth, a spokesman for the prosecutor, said police officers with search warrants entered 11 locations in and around the city of Wolfsburg, where Volkswagen is based. The places searched included the headquarters complex, Mr. Lopez's department, the company's Rothehof guest house, and a subsidiary, the Marketing Management Institute in nearby Braunschweig.
The object of the searches, among other things, he said, was to find documents from GM and Adam Opel that supposedly ended up at VW. Mr. Nauth gave no further details and did not explain why the searches took place so long after the inquiry was first announced.
At a special meeting of the supervisory board two and a half weeks ago, Mr. Lopez said that GM documents had inadvertently ended up in a VW guest house and that he had ordered them destroyed on learning of their existence, according to an internal VW memo. He said he played no role in packaging or transporting the papers.
On Aug. 6, VW conceded that GM papers had been destroyed by former GM employees in Wiesbaden and at its guest house.
Hans-Peter Blechinger, a VW spokesman, said that Mr. Lopez was working at company headquarters when the searches took place Thursday, and that the supervisory and managing boards fully support him.