SAN FRANCISCO -- Patrick Pelata fell on his sword to save his boss and friend -- and maybe his company.
Pelata, often called one of the industry's best product strategists, was part of a small team of executives Carlos Ghosn brought to Nissan Motor Co. in 1999 after Renault bought a controlling stake in the Japanese company.
The two had attended France's elite Ecole Polytechnique together, and Ghosn entrusted his friend to oversee and streamline Nissan's product, design and strategy.
Pelata's success at reviving Nissan led him back to Paris as Ghosn's right-hand man in 2008, first leading Renault's emerging market strategy, then as COO during the global economic crisis.
But when Renault mishandled an internal corporate espionage investigation -- wrongfully dismissing three senior managers falsely accused of selling trade secrets -- Pelata was on the hot seat.
As COO, Pelata admits that he was in charge of the day-to-day oversight of the investigation. But he says he had no reason to doubt the validity of the accusations made by the Renault security investigators.
Renault promised to compensate the dismissed executives for damage to their reputations and offered to rehire them. But someone had to take responsibility for the affair, which had inflamed the French press and government.
"It was a collective mistake, and there were many reasons for that mistake," Pelata said in an interview. "I had my share of responsibility. I could not say I was" innocent.
The French government -- which owns 15 percent of Renault -- pressed for Ghosn to resign, Pelata recalled.
"They said that top management needed to be accountable," he said. "They were targeting Carlos Ghosn. But they realized his leaving meant the Renault-Nissan Alliance would be weakened, and there was no scenario for his replacement."
The French government backed off from calling for Ghosn's resignation. But the public still needed a scapegoat.
After more than 25 years at Renault, Pelata resigned as COO in April 2011, taking a lower post within the Renault-Nissan Alliance before leaving the automaker in summer 2012.
"I had to leave," Pelata said. "It still is not easy to digest."