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Fugitive Ghosn slams Nissan, Japan officials, says he is willing to stand trial

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Carlos Ghosn presented what he described as evidence of the plot against him at a press conference in Lebanon.
Source: AP Photo

Fugitive former automotive executive Carlos Ghosn on Jan. 8 lashed out at senior Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. executives and Japanese officials over what he said was an attempt to frame him for financial misconduct to derail closer ties with French partner Renault SA

In an eagerly anticipated press conference, Ghosn spoke for the first time since his jaw-dropping escape to Lebanon while awaiting trial in Japan. The former Nissan chairman said he had "come back to life" after an ordeal that had left him "numb" since his arrest in November 2018. He added that the affair has inflicted huge damage on both Nissan and Renault.

"For the first time since this nightmare began, I can defend myself, speak easily. It was very difficult hearing myself being described the way I was being described," Ghosn told a packed conference room of international media.

"I was painted in the media in Japan as a cold, greedy dictator. ... It's wrong," Ghosn said.

Ghosn named a number of senior Nissan executives, including former CEO Hiroto Saikawa, as culpable for orchestrating his downfall and said their actions sought to deflect from the decline to the business their management had brought about. He also took aim at Japan's public prosecutor, who he alleges threatened to embroil members of his family in the case if Ghosn did not confess to the charges.

Ghosn's declarations will come as an embarrassment to Renault and Nissan, whose operations he partially combined through a cost-saving alliance that Mitsubishi Motors Corp. later also joined, and could potentially heighten tensions between the two companies. Ghosn said Nissan's market capitalization had dropped $10 billion since his departure and Renault's had fallen €5 billion.

The charges against Ghosn, all of which he has denied, include deliberately underreporting his full salary to Japan's securities regulator and using company funds to back up risky personal speculation on financial markets.

Ghosn talked reporters through several documents with figures blotted out, presenting them as proof of his innocence. He said he would make more of them available through his lawyers.

The ferocity of Saikawa's depiction of Ghosn's management style over 17 years at Nissan laid bare the depth of resentment at the Japanese company stemming from the influence Renault gained when, under Ghosn's leadership, it stepped in to rescue the company from collapse in 1999.

While Nissan was restored to health, its executives were frustrated at the control exerted by a large foreign shareholder in which it had a reciprocal stake but no voting rights. These governance issues quickly overshadowed Ghosn's alleged misdeeds after his departure as Nissan executives jostled to reduce Renault's influence.

Ghosn said the focus by his Japanese peers on scuppering a merger with Renault, which he said he never actually planned or suggested, had caused both companies to miss out on a valuable opportunity with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Ghosn said he had been negotiating a deal between Fiat Chrysler and Renault and was potentially weeks from concluding it at the time of his arrest.

"The alliance missed the unmissable which is Fiat Chrysler. It's unbelievable. How can you lose that? How can you lose this opportunity?" Ghosn said.

"They said we want to turn the Ghosn page. Well, that is very successful. They turned the Ghosn page because there is no more growth, no more increase in profit, no more strategy and no alliance. What we see is a masquerade in an alliance that is not going to go anywhere. This is political."

Ghosn said the vendetta against him had left the alliance between Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi in tatters at a time when rivals are collaborating more closely than ever to cope with shifts to electric, connected and self-driving vehicles.

A Renault spokesperson told S&P Global Market Intelligence the company had no comment, while Nissan could not immediately be reached.

"Defendant Ghosn's allegation that the prosecution was conspired by Nissan and Public Prosecutors Office is categorically false and completely contrary to fact," a statement from Japan's Public Prosecutors Office said.

Ghosn said he did not resign from Renault, as a French government minister had announced, but instead offered to step aside from the role in his absence to facilitate operations.

He also countered reports that he was initially arrested while onboard the jet that brought him to Tokyo, instead saying he was taken aside in the airport over an apparent problem with his visa.

Ghosn said he was fortunate to be a citizen of three countries — Lebanon, France and Brazil — which do not routinely extradite their citizens but said he had not been given specific assurances by Lebanese officials that he would not be extradited.

Ghosn said he would be willing to stand trial over the charges in any country where he was confident it would be conducted fairly but reiterated that with a conviction rate of more than 99%, he saw no prospect for this in Japan.

"Why Japan is paying me with evil for the good I have done for the country? I don't understand it," he said.