Ikea France execs face verdicts for alleged worker spying


VERSAILLES, France — A panel of judges is to rule Tuesday whether officials of the French subsidiary of Ikea, the home furnishings giant with a family-friendly image, spied on union representatives, employees and some unhappy customers.

Ikea France, two former CEOs and a risk management official are among 15 people facing possible fines, prison terms or both for an alleged system of espionage to sift out trouble-makers in the ranks and profile squabbling customers between 2009 and 2012.

Trade unions accuse Ikea France of collecting personal data by fraudulent means, notably via illegally obtained police files, and illicitly disclosing personal information.

If convicted, the company, which said it cooperated in the investigation, risks a maximum penalty of 3.75 million euros ($4.5 million).

At the close of a two-week trial in Versailles in March, prosecutor Pamela Tabardel asked the court to hand Ikea France a 2 million-euro fine, “an exemplary sentence and a strong message to all companies.”

Lawyers for Ikea France denied that the company had any strategy of “generalized espionage.”

But the executive then in charge of risk management, Jean-François Paris, acknowledged to French judges that 530,000 to 630,000 euros a year were earmarked for such investigations. Paris — the only official to have admitted to the alleged illegal sleuthing — said his department was responsible for handling the operation on orders from former CEO Jean-Louis Baillot.

Paris is charged with detaining information of a personal nature and complicity in illegally divulging it.

The two former CEOs are charged with complicity in illegally collecting and receiving stolen personal information among other things. If convicted, they face sentences of up to 10 years in prison and fines of 750,000 euros.

Baillot, chief executive officer from 1996 to 2009, has denied he ordered up a spy operation.

For Ikea France’s lawyer, Emmanuel Daoud, the entire case is marked by a lack of hard evidence and holes.

Trade unions alleged that Ikea France paid to gain access to police files that had information about targeted individuals, particularly union activists and customers who were in disputes with Ikea. Two police officers who furnished information are among those awaiting judgement.

Among accusations was the alleged use of unauthorized data by Ikea France to try to catch an employee who had claimed unemployment benefits but drove a Porsche. In another alleged instance of illegal prying, the subsidiary reportedly investigated an employee’s criminal record to determine how the employee was able to own a BMW on a low income.

The company fired four executives and changed internal policy after French prosecutors opened a criminal probe in 2012.

The company also faces potential damages from civil lawsuits filed by unions and 74 employees.

In France, Ikea, a subsidiary of the Swedish furniture store, employs more than 10,000 people in 34 stores, an e-commerce site and a customer support center.

Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed.

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