Carlos Ghosn tries one more risky gamble to save his reputation

Nearly 17 months after Carlos Ghosn made a stunning escape from trial in Japan—smuggled inside a musical box—the former chairman of the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi auto alliance is hoping to try salvage his reputation with one more risky legal gambit: Subjecting himself to a week-long grilling by a team of French investigators.

“It will give me the first opportunity officially…to give my own version and my own justification,” he told the Associated Press in a lengthy interview in Beirut, where he has lived as an international fugitive, on Interpol’s most-wanted list, since his brazen flight from justice in December 2019.

French investigative judges are due to arrive in the Lebanese capital to depose Ghosn over the course of a week, beginning on Monday, about alleged financial misconduct amounting to millions of dollars; France has already frozen his assets there, including two sprawling homes. Ghosn told AP he voluntarily agreed to be questioned, believing that face-to-face interrogation, in his fluent French, might offer him his best shot yet at overcoming his daunting legal problems.

“Up until now, they [French investigators] have had a biased source of information,” he said, in a wide-ranging interview in a hotel in Beirut, where he lives under armed protection. French prosecutors, he says, have until now been dealing with details about his business dealings which were “taken out of context and completely skewed. I am hoping that with my explanations and the documents that we have, we can influence the process.”

Calculated risk

Yet Ghosn’s decision to cooperate with French investigators is a gamble. Under France’s legal system, it could lead to charges being dropped, or to formal charges being brought against him in that country—a process that could ultimately lead to a trial and possibly even conviction.

That would be far more serious than the current legal limbo in which Ghosn now exists.

Feeling aggrieved and persecuted, Ghosn told the AP he believes he is up against powerful foes who are determined to permanently destroy his reputation.

“Obviously I have been the object of a character assassination campaign, frankly massive, led by obviously Nissan with the prosecutor [in Japan] and the complicity of the Japanese government,” he says in his AP interview. Japan’s “accomplices in France,” he says, have until now believed the version of events spun by Nissan executives and the Japanese government.

The French are probing whether Ghosn—a gregarious, outsized personality—used a total of about €630,000 (about $770,000) of Renault’s company funds to throw two black-tie dinner parties in the sumptuous Versailles Chateau outside Paris, where actors dressed in 18th century gowns and wigs entertained guests; one was billed as a celebration of the Renault-Nissan alliance, but French authorities are investigating whether it was really to celebrate Ghosn’s 60th birthday, on which it fell. Also under investigation is whether Ghosn funneled €11 million (about $13.56 million) to himself and his family, which flowed from a Dutch subsidiary through an auto dealer in Oman.

“Hit by a bus”

For one of the world’s most high-flying corporate execs, it has been a stunning descent.

Ghosn likened the drastic change in his life as “like you have, you know, I don’t know, a heart attack somewhere, or you’ve been hit by a bus,” he told the AP. “All of a sudden you are in a completely different reality, and you have to adapt to this reality.”

That new reality began in November 2018, when Japanese law-enforcement authorities hauled Ghosn into custody on suspicion of gross financial misconduct, charging that he had concealed tens of millions of dollars of his earnings while serving as Nissan’s CEO and chairman.

He endured 130 days in solitary confinement, before being granted bail. Former Nissan executive Greg Kelly, who is American, was arrested with Ghosn in Japan in 2018, and is currently on trial there for allegedly underreporting Ghosn’s earnings. “Obviously he is innocent,” Ghosn says.

Ghosn was convinced he faced a long period in prison in Japan, where conviction rates are above 99%; he told the AP Japan’s justice system was “brutal.” He concluded he needed to escape, in a plot that he says “was very bold, but because it was bold, I thought it may be successful.”

He was concealed in a large musical box and spirited on to a private plane headed to Turkey, and then on to Lebanon; he has French and Lebanese nationalities, as well as being a citizen of Brazil, where he was born. His brazen flight, while Japanese security was distracted by the New Year’s holiday, was allegedly aided by Michael and Peter Taylor, an American father and son, who are now in custody in Japan, awaiting trial, after being extradited from the U.S. in March.

Compared to those men, Ghosn is a free man–of sorts.

He is mostly hunkered down in his large home—heavily damaged when a warehouse full of chemicals exploded in Beirut Port last August—and moves around the city under the protection of a large bodyguard. He teaches a business class once a week, and occupies a workspace within the offices of his lawyers, where he prepares his defense on multiple fronts.

Last week, he lost one legal case in the Netherlands, when a judge ordered him to repay about $6 million he had earned from a joint venture between Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. The judge said the money was not justified. Ghosn told AP he planned to appeal the ruling.

Aside from Ghosn’s own woes, the company too fared badly after his arrest. Nissan shares plunged 30% during the following year, before slightly recovering, and without its famous chairman, its alliance with Renault badly frayed, as the companies fought a bitter power struggle.

Ghosn told the AP his ordeal was “obviously a disaster for me, but [also] a disaster for the company, a disaster for the alliance and what it represents, because you can hardly see who’s winning in this.”

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