Lopez linked to Opel documents: Criminal investigation being widened

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A GERMAN state prosecutor said yesterday she had established the first clear link between Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua, Volkswagen's production chief, and documents missing from his former employer, General Motors.

Part of four boxes of material found in late June in a Wiesbaden flat 'had been produced at the express request of Mr Lopez', the Darmstadt prosecutor said in her first formal statement since beginning the criminal investigation in April.

Evidence from numerous GM executives confirmed that these boxes of documents, slides and overhead projector transparencies contained material from Opel's technical development centre, including top secret plans for a new generation of small cars at GM's German unit. 'These files should only have been available to top managers,' she said. Other documents found in the flat related to Opel's sales strategy, cost-saving plans and information on the new Vectra, sold in Britain as the Cavalier.

On the basis of these findings, the prosecutor's office said the criminal investigation into document theft was being widened beyond Mr Lopez and his right-hand man, Jose Gutierrez, to include two other close colleagues, Jorge Alvarez and Rosario Piazza, who had occupied the Wiesbaden flat.

However, VW yesterday stood by its controversial production manager. 'The supervisory and management boards reconfirm that Mr Lopez, in his few months at Volkswagen, has done outstanding work,' it said.

VW accused the investigation of being one-sided, based on evidence only from GM executives.

Horst Borghs, a member of the Opel board, said: 'The result of the prosecutor's investigation confirms our worry that secret Opel documents are in the wrong hands.'

The state prosecutor's office said the investigation would now focus on questioning Volkswagen employees, which is understood to mean that it wishes to interview Mr Lopez and his three colleagues. All are currently away on holiday, with Mr Lopez in Spain. VW said they were expected back on 2 August.

Yesterday's developments contributed to a sense of rapidly increasing momentum in the Lopez affair, as the local mass media finally latched on to it. 'VW-Lopez: Five years in jail?' was the banner headline in Bild, Germany's most popular newspaper.