Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

PARIS — Three senior Ikea executives in France have been placed under investigation by prosecutors amid allegations that they authorized illegal snooping on the backgrounds of employees and customers.

In a case that raises uneasy questions about the sharing of data between law enforcement and the private sector, French prosecutors said this week that the chief executive of Ikea France, Stefan Vanoverbeke, and two other people were being investigated for their possible involvement in an alleged conspiracy to collect a range of personal information, including automobile registrations, property records and criminal records.

The information allegedly was collected to check up on employees or to dig up unflattering background information on customers bringing complaints or lawsuits against the company, a Swedish home furnishings giant with operations in more than 40 countries.

Vanoverbeke’s predecessor as chief executive, Jean-Louis Baillot, and Ikea France’s current chief financial officer, Dariusz Rychert, were also placed under investigation, as were two unnamed police officers. Ikea France itself has been ordered to post a bond of 500,000 euros, or $673,000, while the inquiry continues, raising the possibility that the company could face legal action as well.

Under the French legal system, being placed under formal investigation is one step short of criminal charges.

Government records on individuals are strictly protected under French law, and allegations that they may have been shared with a private company have raised hackles with labor unions and consumer groups.

The three men were taken in for questioning Monday by investigators in Versailles, near Paris, and were formally placed under investigation late Tuesday. The move followed a police search of the headquarters of Ikea France in nearby Plaisir last month, as well as interviews earlier this year with about a dozen witnesses who included current and former Ikea employees and police officers.

Marie Antoinette Gallimard, a spokeswoman for Ikea France, said Thursday that the company took the allegations seriously and was cooperating fully with investigators. She added that Vanoverbeke and Rychert would continue in their jobs while the inquiry proceeded.

Alexis Gublin, a lawyer for Vanoverbeke, said his client denied any involvement in the alleged spying and was cooperating with investigators.

The spying allegations first came to light in early 2012, when the French magazine Le Canard Enchainé published what it said were emails between Ikea France executives and a private security company. The messages indicated that Ikea had sought background checks on as many as 200 individuals.