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Carlos Ghosn Fights Back

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

COMMENTARY

Carlos Ghosn, the former executive who fled Japan last month, went on the offensive today against the Japanese criminal justice system and Nissan Motor Co., the automaker he formerly headed.

“This was persecution,” Ghosn said at a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon, of his 2018 arrest in Japan. “I want to clear my name…You can expect me in the next weeks to take some initiative to tell you how I am going to clear my name.”

Ghosn spent more than two hours attacking Japanese prosecutors and Nissan. He spoke in animated fashion, constantly making hand gestures. There were various live feeds of the event, including on CNBC and Reuters.

The tone varied from hurt (in describing being imprisoned or under strict house arrest) to anger to gloating (when describing how badly Nissan is doing without him).

It was theatrical. Then again, you rarely see a fugitive from justice conduct a press conference.

Ghosn was first arrested in November 2018, while other charges came later. Among other things, he was accused of underreporting his compensation and personally using company assets.

The executive first made his global reputation when he led a turnaround at Nissan. He was even the subject of Japanese comic books for his Nissan achievements. Ghosn was instrumental in assembling an alliance of Nissan and Renault, with Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors added later. All of this made him one of the leading auto executives in the world.

During the press conference, Ghosn said at the time of his arrest that he was in discussions with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles about that company joining the alliance. He also said the Obama administration wanted in 2009 for him to become CEO of General Motors Co. as part of a federal bailout. Ghosn said he regretted turning that opportunity down.

After November 2018, Ghosn led a far different life. He was isolated from his family. His Japanese lawyers held his three passports (from Lebanon, Brazil and France). He was under surveillance in Japan.

“The feeling of hopelessness was profound,” Ghosn said today. In Ghosn’s narrative, executives at Nissan were collaborating with Japanese prosecutors.

As a result, the former executive said, he concluded he had to get out of Japan or die in that country.

Not the usual comment at an auto industry-related press conference. Then again, nobody said Carlos Ghosn was a typical auto executive.

Mission: Impossible

Ghosn surfaced in Lebanon late in December. He declined to discuss how he got out of Japan. There have been reports, including a Wall Street Journal story, that part of the plan involved smuggling Ghosn out of a large case.

While he kept mum about how he got out of Japan, Ghosn also took a victory lap. He painted the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi alliance as being in disarray since his exit.

“There is no more growth, there is no more increase in profit…There is no more alliance,” Ghosn said. Essentially, he argued the alliance is falling apart without him there.

Nevertheless, Ghosn faces an uncertain future. Japan doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Lebanon. But how freely can Ghosn travel?

The former chief of Nissan said he’s prepared to stay in Lebanon for an extended period.

“I’d rather stay in this prison than the one I was in,” he said.

What’s more, Ghosn evoked the Mission: Impossible TV series – an apt comparison given how he escaped Japan – in terms of what he’ll do next to prove his innocence.

“I am used to what you call Mission: Impossible,” Ghosn said.

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