Carlos Ghosn Defends His Legacy

Carlos Ghosn Defends His Legacy


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Most global fugitives tend to lie low. They do not beckon reporters to televised news conferences or allow themselves to be photographed drinking wine by candlelight days after being smuggled in a box aboard a chartered jet to freedom.

But Carlos Ghosn, the deposed auto executive, is no normal fugitive. Unapologetic and unrelenting, he stood at a lectern in Beirut before more than 100 journalists on Wednesday and laid out his case for how criminal charges of financial wrongdoing in Japan are part of a vast conspiracy to take him down.

The highly choreographed event, during which Mr. Ghosn took aim at the Japanese justice system and his corporate enemies, was scheduled 415 days after he was first arrested and more than a week after a team of operatives helped spirit him away from house arrest in Tokyo, where he was awaiting trial.

“I did not escape justice,” said Mr. Ghosn, 65, wearing an immaculate blue suit, white shirt and red tie. “I fled injustice and political persecution.”

For all the bravado he projects, Mr. Ghosn is a potent symbol of globalism under pressure, an imperial executive in retreat.

Until his arrest, he ruled an automotive alliance that spanned continents, comprising Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi. As head of Nissan, Mr. Ghosn was one of only a handful of foreign chief executives of a Japanese company. But the alliance now threatens to fall apart, a parallel for a time when the global trade order and the military and political alliances that once held the modern world together are facing their toughest tests in decades.

For nearly three hours on Wednesday, alternating flawlessly through four languages (English, Arabic, French and Portuguese), Mr. Ghosn talked about how “more than 20 books of management have been written about me.” He referred to himself in the third person and talked about the drop in market valuation at the auto companies he once ran. He drew applause from some reporters, and flattered others, promising to take questions from every region.

Mr. Ghosn’s presentation felt, at times, like one he would have delivered to fellow executives and global leaders during one of his regular trips to the World Economic Forum in Davos, the annual gathering in Switzerland that has come to be seen as both a forum for world-changing ideas and a convening of the capitalist and self-congratulatory elite.

In a sit-down interview with The New York Times after the news conference, Mr. Ghosn sounded more subdued than during his fiery performance in front of the cameras. He expressed regrets about whom he had hired to replace him at Nissan, admitting, “Frankly, I should have retired.”

But Mr. Ghosn remained fiercely protective of his legacy, which is badly bruised.

“The revival of Nissan, nobody’s going to take it from me,” he insisted.

Mr. Ghosn’s story isn’t a neat one. Company insiders have described him as increasingly haughty and imperious. Though he blames the Japanese justice system for its unfairness, he agreed last fall to pay $1 million to settle a civil case in the United States, which barred him from serving as an officer or a director of a publicly traded company for 10 years. Mr. Ghosn did not admit wrongdoing under the terms of the settlement, but it essentially ended his chance of ever running another large global business.

A man with passports from several countries and homes across the world, Mr. Ghosn and his wife, Carole, who also faces a Japanese arrest warrant, are essentially stuck in Lebanon, where they have family and own property but are not free from prosecution. On Wednesday, Lebanese prosecutors said Mr. Ghosn must submit to an interrogation over his flight from Japan.

France is also investigating whether Mr. Ghosn used company money from Renault to throw a Marie Antoinette-themed party at Versailles in 2016. And Nissan has accused him of siphoning millions of dollars from the auto company to pay for his yacht, buy houses and distribute cash to members of his family — all of which he denies.

Mr. Ghosn argued that in most countries, he would not have been held for months in jail for these types of allegations. He said he felt he was being treated “like a terrorist.”

During the news conference, he flashed giant slides on a white wall behind him, showing various corporate documents. In explaining some of the questionable personal expenses, Mr. Ghosn used a defense common on Wall Street: He said other executives at Nissan had signed off on the transactions, which made them authorized by the company.

Since his arrest in Japan in November 2018, Mr. Ghosn and his supporters have worked aggressively to tell his side of the story and attack his critics.

He has employed lawyers on at least three continents, talked to a Hollywood producer about making a movie about his legal ordeal and hired a public relations firm that advised the National Football League on its efforts to reduce head injuries.

In France, the “Committee to Support Mr. Carlos Ghosn” formed on Facebook. Some of his supporters there blame the government for failing to stand up for Mr. Ghosn, a French citizen, for fear of angering the country’s “yellow vest” protesters railing against the global elite.

In Lebanon, where Mr. Ghosn grew up, he is celebrated as a member of the diaspora of business leaders and artists who have achieved worldwide success. Hours after he landed in Beirut, Mr. Ghosn met with the country’s president, Michel Aoun, and other top leaders, and operatives who helped him carry out his escape had ties to the country.

Lebanese supporters paid for billboard ads across Beirut with the executive’s face on them and the message: “We are all Carlos Ghosn.” But in truth, there are few people in the world who have Mr. Ghosn’s money and influence.

A grandson of a Lebanese entrepreneur who ran several companies in South America, Mr. Ghosn was born in Brazil in 1954. His family moved back to Lebanon when he was 6, and he later attended college in France.

“I’ve always been someone who was different,” he wrote in his autobiography in 2003.

Mr. Ghosn went to work in the auto industry after college and made his mark revitalizing Renault. In the 1990s, he helped turn around Nissan by slashing jobs and upending its corporate culture.

“It was a dead company,” he said on Wednesday.

Mr. Ghosn expanded his auto empire further by creating the alliance of Renault, Nissan and another Japanese company, Mitsubishi.

His leadership of Renault, which the French government partly owns, gave him political standing in France. In Lebanon, some people hoped he would run for public office, maybe even president.

Mr. Ghosn’s personal and professional empire collapsed when he was arrested at the Tokyo airport on his return from a trip to Lebanon. By that point, he had stepped down as chief executive at Nissan, but was still its chairman.

From the airport, Mr. Ghosn was taken to jail, where he was forced to live in solitary confinement for weeks at a time. He was allowed to shower twice a week and was let out of his cell for 30 minutes a day. Prosecutors, he said, hid the evidence against him and prohibited him from contacting his wife in Lebanon.

He was released on bail, but he was jailed again in April after he announced that he planned to speak with the press.

Last fall, Mr. Ghosn said, his lawyers told him that his case could drag on for five years, which he said was a violation of a basic human right to a speedy trial.

It wasn’t all glum. Two days before his Dec. 29 escape, his secretary made him a reservation at a Tokyo restaurant where he enjoyed his favorite salad with sesame dressing, according to the restaurant’s manager. He posed for photos with about 40 customers.

Mr. Ghosn wouldn’t talk on Wednesday about how he got from Japan to Beirut, despite reporters’ attempts.

Government-authorized media accounts from Turkey, where Mr. Ghosn landed on the first leg of his journey, have said he was smuggled inside of a large box from an airport in Osaka, Japan.

The box was loaded into the storage area of a private plane, which was accessible from where the passengers sat, according to the Turkish account. The two operatives working with Mr. Ghosn told the flight attendant not to bother them.

After takeoff, Mr. Ghosn was let out of the box and sat in the passenger area, which contained a bed and sofa and was separated from the front of the plane by a locked door.

For about 12 hours, the quintessential global citizen was officially stateless, flying high above Asia in secret.

The Bombardier jet landed in the rain at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. A car pulled up to the plane and then drove to another jet parked a short distance away, according to the Turkish media. That second plane then took off for Beirut.

At least 15 operatives were involved in the operation, and some of them were not aware of whom they were extracting from Japan, according to a person briefed on the operation. They assumed that the plan was to rescue a kidnapped child.

In the interview on Wednesday, Mr. Ghosn said he had planned the escape himself, but with help from others, whom he wouldn’t disclose. “Little by little,” he said, he began to think through a strategy for getting out. “When I started to do that, it kept me motivated. It kept me alive.”

During the escape, he kept telling himself: “You need to always remember what happened to you. No matter what, never forget that.”

Ben Dooley reported from Beirut, and Michael Corkery from New York. Reporting was contributed by Vivian Yee from Beirut, Hisako Ueno from Tokyo, Liz Alderman from Paris, and Emily Flitter and David Yaffe-Bellany from New York.



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