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FBI asks Bonn's help in GM espionage case


BONN, Germany -- The FBI has asked the German justice ministry for assistance in investigating General Motors Corp.'s assertions that a former executive, Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua, committed industrial espionage when he jumped to Volkswagen A.G. in 1993, a ministry official said yesterday.

The request by the FBI is the latest twist in a bitter 14-month dispute between the automotive giants over trade secrets.

Separate investigations in Germany and the United States into GM's assertions center on Mr. Lopez, Volkswagen's head of purchasing and production, who jumped to the German automaker from GM in March 1993.

He had been a GM vice president and was expected to head the company's North American operations.

General Motors contends that Mr. Lopez and seven co-workers who followed him to Volkswagen stole GM trade secrets, including the design for a new small car and detailed price lists for parts.

Volkswagen and Mr. Lopez deny the contentions.

No charges have been filed against the 53-year-old Basque industrial engineer in either the United States or Germany.

A spokesman for the justice ministry yesterday confirmed a report published Sunday by Der Spiegel, the German weekly news magazine, that said the FBI had requested assistance in its investigation of the industrial espionage allegations against Volkswagen and Mr. Lopez.

The article said the FBI wanted to see the files of the Darmstadt prosecutor's office, which is leading the investigation in Germany into GM's contentions. A spokesman for the Darmstadt prosecutor's office refused to comment on the report or on the justice ministry's confirmation.

Der Spiegel said investigators in the United States had determined which documents disappeared from GM's Detroit office and how they were transported to Europe.

The American investigators want to determine whether the documents wound up in the hands of Volkswagen executives. If so, the executives said to be involved could be indicted in the United States on charges of industrial espionage.

Volkswagen responded to the news of the FBI's request with a statement saying it was aware of the American inquiry. The German automaker said it assumed it would be given an opportunity to present its side. An official with General Motors said the company was confident that the investigations would ultimately lead to indictments.

Since the investigation began April 30, 1993, German police officers have taken numerous depositions and seized more than two million pages of documents, as well as computer diskettes and even computers in searches of Volkswagen's offices and the homes of some of VW's employees.

In late April, the Darmstadt prosecutor's office announced that proprietary GM documents were found in searches last summer of offices and residences used by Mr. Lopez and other former GM employees who followed him to Volkswagen.

The materials included printed documents and computer diskettes containing information on car development, plans for a factory in Spain and cost-cutting strategies at GM and Opel.

The prosecutor's office disclosed May 27 that secret GM documents were found at a residence of Mr. Lopez after he left for Volkswagen. But the prosecutor's office did not explicitly say he had taken GM secrets to Volkswagen and refused to speculate on whether or when its findings would lead to official charges.

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