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Nissan's Ghosn crisis

Exclusive interview: Ghosn says 'plot and treason' led to arrest

Ex-Nissan chief claims rivals wanted to 'get rid' of him

In his first interview since being detained on Nov.19, ousted Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn claimed that certain people had "distorted reality" for the purpose of "getting rid of him."

TOKYO -- Former Nissan Motor Chairman Carlos Ghosn told Nikkei in an exclusive interview Wednesday that he had "no doubt" that the charges against him were the result of "plot and treason" by Nissan executives opposed to his plan for deeper integration between Renault and its two Japanese alliance partners.

Speaking on the 10th floor of the Tokyo Detention House, dressed in a black fleece jacket and gray sweatpants, Ghosn acknowledged that "there was a plan to integrate" Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors. The plans had been discussed with Nissan President Hiroto Saikawa in September, he added.

In his first interview since being detained on Nov. 19, Ghosn claimed that he had wanted to include Mitsubishi Motors CEO Osamu Masuko in the talks, but "Saikawa wanted it one-on-one."

Once the three automakers were more closely integrated, Ghosn wanted to ensure there would be "autonomy under one holding company," he said, adding that this plan was in line with how he had operated the alliance in past years.

Allies of Ghosn's have argued that some Nissan executives feared a further concentration of power under his leadership, prompting them to cooperate with Tokyo prosecutors.

Ghosn spoke to Nikkei at the Tokyo Detention House, where he has been held since Nov. 19. (Illustration by Hajime Hagiwara)

Nikkei had been requesting a one-on-one interview with Ghosn since his arrest last year. The approval was granted this week.

Ghosn was allowed by the Tokyo District Court to speak with Nikkei. Media interviews with prominent business leaders in detention are extremely rare in Japan.

"We don't have much time. Let's get started," Ghosn said at the beginning of the interview from behind the acrylic glass partition. As the end of the allotted 15 minutes approached, he asked the officer for "a little more" time, and was granted a five-minute extension.

The Brazilian-born tycoon has dismissed accusations that his 19-year reign at Nissan was a "dictatorship," saying this was a narrative created by rivals who wanted to remove him. "People translated strong leadership to dictator, to distort reality" for the "purpose of getting rid of me," he added.

Ghosn has been held without bail for more than 70 days since Tokyo prosecutors arrested him on allegations of financial misconduct.

He was charged with underreporting his salary over several years, and aggravated breach of trust for allegedly transferring to Nissan personal trading losses from foreign exchange contracts.

The breach-of-trust charges center on $14.7 million in payments to a company run by Saudi businessman Khaled al-Juffali.

He denied the accusations and claimed "the executive in charge of the region signed [the approval]."

The payment was made from Ghosn's "CEO reserve," a pot of money that he was free to decide how to spend. He said the "CEO reserve is not a black box" and "four officers signed" for the payment to al-Juffali.

Ghosn is also accused of receiving 7.82 million euros ($8.9 million) in improper payments through Nissan-Mitsubishi B.V., a Netherlands-based joint venture between the two Japanese companies. He said the venture was established for "synergy and not for payment," adding that the claims of improper payments were a "distortion of reality."

Ghosn said his purchase of luxury properties in Rio de Janeiro and Beirut -- which Nissan alleges were paid for improperly through a subsidiary -- were approved by the legal department. Pointing to a former loyalist and long-time executive in the legal department, Ghosn said: "Hari Nada has done all this."

He justified the houses on the grounds that he "needed a safe place where [he] can work and receive people in both Brazil and Lebanon."

"[Have I] done [something] inappropriate? I am not a lawyer, I don't know the interpretation of [such] facts," Ghosn said, showing his frustration over Nissan's internal investigation.

"These are known by everybody, why didn't they tell me?"

Ghosn, whose second bail request was rejected Jan. 22, insisted that he was not a flight risk and he would not destroy evidence.

"I won't flee, I will defend [myself]," he added. "All the evidence is with Nissan, and Nissan forbids all employees to talk to me."

When asked about life in the detention center, Ghosn said "there is up and down." As for his health, he simply said he was "doing fine."

After his arrest, Ghosn appeared to have envisioned attending a Renault board meeting in Paris, explaining his position, and holding a news conference. But his prolonged detention in a Tokyo jail frustrated those plans.

Nissan dismissed Ghosn from his position as chairman in November. An extraordinary general meeting of shareholders scheduled in mid-April is expected to remove Ghosn as a director.

Ghosn resigned as chairman and CEO of Renault, and former Michelin chief Jean-Dominique Senard was appointed as the chairman.

The three members of the alliance are expected to revisit how it is operated in the absence of Ghosn's leadership. "I cannot speculate about the future of the alliance," Ghosn said.

The French government, Renault's largest shareholder, has previously requested Ghosn make the relationship between the two automakers "irreversible."

Following Ghosn's arrest, France also informed Tokyo of an intention to press ahead with integration. Saikawa, in contrast, has insisted there is "no need for now to discuss [it]."

Interviewed by Nikkei commentator Atsushi Nakayama and Nikkei staff writers Akito Tanaka and Yosuke Kurabe.

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