The war of words between Nissan and its former Chairman Carlos Ghosn took on another dimension Friday with the start of a trial in which the automaker is seeking $95 million in damages from the man once credited with saving it from bankruptcy.
For his part, Ghosn has begun promoting his new book, “Le Temps de la Verite,” or “Time for the Truth,” in which he accuses some of Nissan’s most senior leaders of setting him up as part of a “coup” meant to wrest back control from foreign influences, including the company’s French alliance partner Renault.
Ghosn’s high-flying career came crashing down in November 2018 when he was arrested upon his return to Japan and accused of an array of financial improprieties. In a statement, Nissan said, “The legal actions initiated today form part of Nissan’s policy of holding Ghosn accountable for the harm and financial losses incurred by the company due to (his) misconduct.”
Among other things, Ghosn has been accused by Japanese prosecutors of hiding 9.3 billion yen, or $88.6 million, in pay, while also transferring some of his personal financial losses to Nissan. He also has been charged with using a $5 million deal with a Mideast car dealership to personally enrich himself.
In a counter-statement, Ghosn said, the “civil lawsuit is an extension to the extremely unreasonable internal investigation with sinister intent by a portion of Nissan’s senior management and the unreasonable arrests and indictments by the public prosecutors.”
It’s coming up on 11 months since the 66-year-old Brazilian-born executive made a daring escape from house arrest in Japan where he faced a broad array of allegations of financial crimes. Ghosn currently remains free in Lebanon, which has no extradition treaty with Japan – though a number of those who assisted him in his escape have since been arrested, including two Americans who continue to fight to prevent their own extradition.
Ghosn was once viewed as a hero in Japan, in 1999 leading a $5 billion bailout of Nissan, the country’s second-largest automaker, by France’s Renault. He even became the star of a popular Japanese comic book.
But following his arrest, which occurred at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport shortly after Ghosn arrived on his corporate jet, his life has been in crisis. He spent much of the first half of 2019 in the Tokyo Detention Center in a tiny, unheated cell. When finally released on bail, Ghosn’s travel was severely restricted and he was barred from meeting with his son and wife. He could only access the internet while at his lawyer’s office.
Nonetheless, he helped organize a brazen escape from Japan during the long Christmas holiday break, flying by corporate jet to Turkey and then on to Lebanon, his ancestral family home. That country does not have an extradition treaty with Japan, but it would be risky to leave, Interpol issuing an arrest warrant.
It remains unclear if or how Ghosn’s case will ever be resolved. But, for now, Ghosn is in better shape than those who stand accused of assisting his escape. A former American Green Beret and his son continue to battle to prevent their extradition to Japan where they have been accused of helping mastermind the December 2018 caper. In September, a U.S. federal judge ruled that Michael L. Taylor and son Peter M. Taylor can be extradited. That move was stayed Oct. 29 by another federal judge, though the battle appears to be far from over.
Still other alleged participants in Lebanon and Turkey also have been arrested and could face jail time even as Ghosn himself remains free, albeit only within the borders of Lebanon.
Separately, former aide Greg Kelly is fighting for his freedom. The American expat won early bail due to health problems but has remained under close watch in Japan where he went on trial in September. Kelly faces a single charge, helping Ghosn cover up some of his income. He could face up to 10 years in prison and a 10 million yen, or $95,600, fine.
According to the Japanese news outlet Nikkei, the case “was never intended by the prosecutors to be the main show.” But, after Ghosn’s embarrassing escape, the publication said in an Oct. 12 report, they are now treating it as a “must-win.”
Ghosn has done nothing to fade away since fleeing to Lebanon. He has held news conferences firing at both Japanese prosecutors and his former allies at Nissan. Now, in his book, he expands upon allegations that he was framed.
“Time for the Truth” blames the “coup” on a cabal of “Old Nissan” insiders, including board member Masakazu Toyoda, as well Ghosn’s hand-picked successor as CEO, Hiroto Saikawa. It also points fingers at the Japanese and French governments. Ghosn contends officials in Tokyo went out of their way to support efforts to topple him, while claiming France opted for “appeasement,” rather than challenge the arrest in order to maintain the fragile Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.
Ghosn did have kind words for a handful of others, including former Nissan executive Jose Munoz – now the vice chairman of Hyundai Motor Group, and Thierry Bollore, former head of Renault. Both came to his defense after Ghosn was arrested.
In an appearance on CNBC this week, Ghosn said he “probably never will go back to Japan” but would like to visit his native Brazil, as well as the U.S., where his children live.
He also said he was “not very optimistic, knowing what I know” about the long-term future of his former company.
For its part, Nissan defended its investigation into Ghosn, and its findings and, in a statement issued earlier this week said, “The company contends that the facts surrounding the misconduct will be shown during the court proceedings and the law will take its course.”