Former Nissan chairman denies misconduct, says he was victimized by former colleagues
BEIRUT— Carlos Ghosn —gesticulating wildly, snapping his fingers and occasionally swearing during his first public appearance since skipping bail in Japan—defended himself against charges of financial crimes and accused prosecutors and former colleagues of orchestrating his downfall.
During a two-hour-plus news conference Wednesday, he also critiqued the recent performance of Nissan Motor Co. NSANY 0.15% and Renault SA, RNO -0.41% the two companies he had linked in an auto-making alliance.
“Frankly, there is no more alliance,” Mr. Ghosn said.
What the former auto executive didn’t say was anything about how he escaped Japan, where he was awaiting trial following his arrest in November 2018. Mr. Ghosn has denied the charges against him and had said he would defend himself in Japanese court. Instead, he fled.
He has said he arranged his exit from Japan by himself. The Wall Street Journal detailed an operation that drew on a cast of characters and months of planning.
On Wednesday, he said he made the decision to run when he realized he could be tied up in the Japanese legal system for years to come.
“Every day, I didn’t know whether I would see the people I love again. It was as if I’d died,” he said of his time in jail. After posting bail, he was still severely restricted in whom he could see. “When I saw that I’d escaped, it was as if, somehow, I was coming back to life,” he said, with his wife, Carole Ghosn, looking on.
Legal officials in Japan responded Wednesday that Mr. Ghosn has only himself to blame for his troubles and called his criticism of Japanese justice wrongheaded. Tokyo’s deputy chief prosecutor, Takahiro Saito, said Mr. Ghosn’s claims at the Beirut news conference “failed to justify his acts.” The former Nissan chief “flagrantly disregarded Japanese law to avoid the consequences of the crimes he committed,” Mr. Saito said.
At times Wednesday, Mr. Ghosn seemed to slip back into his persona of accomplished auto leader, with a reputation that made him a sought-after and widely recognized commentator on his industry. At other moments, though, he struggled to contain his emotions, angrily accusing Japanese prosecutors of pushing him to confess and calling former associates at Nissan “unscrupulous” and “vindictive.”
He called out many of them, including former Nissan Chief Executive Hiroto Saikawa and board member Masakazu Toyoda, as having played a role in a coup to topple him.
A secret investigation by a small group of Nissan executives resulted in his arrest. The Japanese auto maker has said the sole reason for Mr. Ghosn’s arrest and dismissal was his misconduct. Messrs. Saikawa and Toyoda couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday night.
Nissan, in a statement released ahead of the press conference, said it found “numerous acts of misconduct” and would “take appropriate legal action to hold [Mr. Ghosn] accountable for the harm that his misconduct has caused to Nissan.”
Dressed in a dark suit and red tie, Mr. Ghosn answered questions in Arabic, English, French and Portuguese during the conference. The 65-year-old former auto executive was born in Brazil and raised in Lebanon, and later made a name for himself in business in France.
The press conference was his first detailed public account of his case since April, when out on bail in Tokyo he delivered a more-choreographed presentation of his defense. It was also almost a year to the date from his first public appearance after being arrested. At a Japanese court hearing at the time, Mr. Ghosn, gaunt after his confinement, made a brief statement responding to the charges.
On Wednesday, he seemed eager to catch up after 14 months of reticence.
He didn’t change the broad outline of his defense. Mr. Ghosn is accused of not disclosing deferred compensation from Nissan in the tens of millions of dollars. He has said the future pay was hypothetical and there was no binding contract.
He is also accused of diverting Nissan money for his own benefit, which he has also denied. On Wednesday, he walked reporters through a series of detailed explanations for money that he is accused of misusing.
He also unleashed a fusillade of new accusations at specific prosecutors and Nissan executives. He attempted to take on his accusers point-by-point, making rebuttals that involved the minutiae of the Middle Eastern auto market and images of contracts signed by Nissan executives.
Documents he showed on a projection screen were difficult to make out in the crowded room. Mr. Ghosn pointed at portions of contracts that were illegible from the rear of the room, saying they showed the Nissan executives were aware of actions he is accused to have done in secret. Mr. Ghosn promised he would make the documents available to reporters.
Since its former boss’s arrest, Nissan has been buffeted by the fallout. Sales and profit continue to slump, infighting has led to the departure of several executives, including its CEO, and the company’s 20-year-old partnership with Renault is on the rocks. Both auto makers’ share prices have suffered sharply since late 2018.
Mr. Ghosn said that before the arrest, he was close to clinching a deal to bring Fiat Chrysler Automobiles FCAU 0.42% NV into the alliance, which also includes Mitsubishi Motors Corp. While those discussions were known, he suggested they were much further along than commonly believed. Instead, Fiat Chrysler last year agreed to merge with Renault’s French rival, Peugeot maker PSA Group.
“The alliance missed the unmissable,” he said. A spokesperson for Fiat Chrysler declined to comment.