Carlos Ghosn's moment of truth arrives as deposed Nissan boss faces press

Former chief executive officer of Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA Carlos Ghosn hasn't spoken publicly beyond a handful of interviews, a hastily recorded video message and court testimony since his arrest in Tokyo in November 2018.
Former chief executive officer of Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA Carlos Ghosn hasn't spoken publicly beyond a handful of interviews, a hastily recorded video message and court testimony since his arrest in Tokyo in November 2018.PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (BLOOMBERG) - After more than a year away from the cameras and microphones, Carlos Ghosn is set to face the media again, this time not as a legendary auto executive, but as the world's most famous fugitive.

While reams have been written about the former chief executive officer of Nissan Motor Co and Renault SA since his arrest in Tokyo in November 2018, he hasn't spoken publicly beyond a handful of interviews, a hastily recorded video message and court testimony.

Come Wednesday (Jan 8) at 3pm (9pm in Singapore), that will change, with Ghosn set to hold a tell-all news conference in Beirut, the city he fled to after his shock escape by private plane from Japan just over a week ago.

The former CEO has already hinted he'll identify those he considers responsible for his downfall, including government officials.

There's still much to learn. What does he really think of his protege and successor Hiroto Saikawa, who denounced Ghosn on the night of his arrest, and has himself since been forced out of the carmaker under a dark cloud? Who are the figures in the Japanese government Ghosn has threatened to identify, and how were they involved? And how exactly did Ghosn pull off his daring private-jet escape?

Ghosn lashed out at Nissan ahead of the highly anticipated news conference, saying that the automaker removed him to block further integration with Renault.

"Nissan's claim that it conducted 'a robust, thorough internal investigation' is a gross perversion of the truth," he said in a statement early on Wednesday.

Some of the topics Ghosn might discuss include the following.

NISSAN INSIDERS

From day one, Ghosn has blamed his downfall on as-yet unidentified Nissan executives. In his first interview from jail after his arrest, Ghosn pointed the finger at a group of senior managers, whom he said were involved in a plot against him to stave off a merger with Renault, although he didn't divulge their names.

He almost did back in April, when his lawyers released a video prepared in case prosecutors arrested him right before a highly anticipated press conference - they did.

"This is about backstabbing," Ghosn said in the pre-recorded video.

"I'm talking here about a few executives who, obviously for their own interests and for their own selfish fears, are creating a lot of value destruction. Names? You know them."

 
 
 
 

Ghosn at first identified specific people in the video message, but they were cut from the final version by his lawyers because of the sensitive nature of Ghosn's position at the time. Now from his base of security in Lebanon, he's free to point fingers.

Some are predictable. Saikawa, who worked on the investigation against Ghosn behind his back, is likely to bear much of his former boss' ire. Likewise executives Toshiaki Onuma and Hari Nada, key figures at Nissan who struck plea-bargain agreements with prosecutors before Ghosn's arrest. Hitoshi Kawaguchi, the former head of government affairs, was a central figure between the carmaker and Japan's government.

Ghosn singled out Nada in his statement, saying that he shouldn't have been allowed to conduct the investigation even after pleading guilty to some of the conduct involved.

But Nissan isn't going down without a fight. The carmaker has has spent more than US$200 million (S$270 million) on lawyers, security staff and digital forensics as it investigates Ghosn and former lieutenant Greg Kelly, people with knowledge of the matter said. Nissan is also preparing to oust Ghosn from his base in Beirut, a house that the Yokohama-based automaker purchased for him, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the information isn't public.

JAPANESE GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS

This is where things could get interesting. Among those that Ghosn plans to identify in the "coup" to take him out include some people in the Japanese government, according to Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo, who said she spoke with Ghosn last weekend.

How high might this go? Those who could be waiting to hear their names checked may include Hiroshige Seko, the industry minister at the time of Ghosn's arrest, as well as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. The two figures would have been core to any talks around a Nissan and Renault merger.

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party has already suggested it's concerned about Ghosn's remarks. Itsunori Onodera, a former defence minister and senior party official, said Japan should be concerned about the impact of the forthcoming "attacks" that Ghosn will level at Japan's reputation.

"Those remarks will be transmitted to the world and inflict large damage on Japan. We should be worried not just about his escape, but also about the impact (of his remarks)," he told Bloomberg.

JAPAN'S LEGAL SYSTEM

Even before he skipped town, Ghosn made little secret of his disdain for the Japanese legal system - and upon landing in Lebanon, it was the first thing he denounced.

He called it a "rigged" justice system "where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied".

His arrest triggered an international discussion about the fairness of Japan's judicial system, where prosecutors can grill suspects repeatedly without their lawyers present and enjoy an almost 100 per cent conviction rate - though they rarely pursue cases they know they can't win.

Ghosn had protested against the bail conditions set by the court, which included not leaving the country and being unable to see his wife Carole - who has herself now been targeted for arrest by Tokyo prosecutors.

Ghosn told Fox that he'll say he's willing to have his case heard by any court, so long as it's not one in Japan, and that he was "unnerved and upset" that he hadn't understood the "unfairness" of the Japanese judicial system.

FRENCH ESTABLISHMENT

In interviews, Carole Ghosn lashed out at the French establishment for not doing more to help the former head of Renault, who also is a French citizen.

For example, she told the Journal du Dimanche that President Emmanuel Macron hadn't answered her pleas for help.

"The silence from the Elysee Palace is deafening," she said. "I thought France was a country that defended the presumption of innocence. They've all forgotten everything Carlos did for France's economy and for Renault."