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Star witness in Ghosn trial points finger at ex-Nissan executive

Toshiaki Onuma grilled by defense after saying Greg Kelly is complicit in crimes

Former Nissan Motor Chariman Carlos Ghosn leaves the Tokyo Detention House in Tokyo last year. He has since fled to Lebanon where he now resides.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The prosecution's star witness in a trial of a former Nissan executive accused of helping Carlos Ghosn commit financial crimes wrapped up his testimony this week, accusing company executives of conspiring to compensate the former Nissan chairman while avoiding public disclosure in testimony that has stunned corporate Japan.

The witness, Toshiaki Onuma, 61, finished his testimony at the Tokyo District Court in a trial against Greg Kelly, Nissan's former representative director and Ghosn's deputy. Kelly, an American citizen, was arrested with Ghosn two years ago for financial misconduct, but because Ghosn made a dramatic escape from Japan last year to avoid trial, Kelly, along with Nissan, are the only defendants.

At the heart of the high-profile case is whether the defendants conspired to underreport Ghosn's compensation through a clandestine agreement to pay the former Nissan boss 9.1 billion yen ($87 million) in compensation upon his retirement. Such an arrangement would violate Japan's financial instruments law. Kelly could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Onuma served as the head of the secretary's office at Nissan from 2007 through March 2019. It is alleged that he is the one who managed the deferred compensation.

On Nov. 1, 2018, shortly before officers arrested Ghosn when he landed in Tokyo, Onuma agreed to a plea deal in which he would cooperate fully with the investigation in exchange for immunity from indictment. He became a key witness for prosecutors, providing both testimony and documents that showed the alleged crime. Onuma appeared in court 22 times between Sept. 29 and Thursday to answer questions.

When questioned by prosecutors, Onuma testified that Ghosn wanted to be compensated after he retired from Nissan's board. Onuma said he and Kelly, 64, thought of ways to fulfill that request while avoiding public disclosure.

Onuma said Ghosn ordered him to itemize the unpaid compensation, which was recorded in a set of "agreement documents," drafted in 2011.

"I showed [the documents] to Kelly," he said.

Kelly's lawyers maintain that no agreement exists to pay future compensation. Under cross-examination, the lawyers asked Onuma if he showed Kelly the documents in question "before or after Ghosn and the others signed the text."

"I believe they were already signed," Onuma replied.

"That's not what is in the written affidavit," said the defense attorney.

It appears that the defense team looked to poke holes in Onuma's credibility by highlighting his less-than-perfect memory. The lawyers dug deep into the weeds at other points of the grilling.

Kelly's attorneys touched on how Onuma continued to meet with prosecutors after the cross-examinations began.

"Did you discuss whether [your testimony] needs to be amended?" a lawyer asked Onuma.

Onuma also took questions from lawyers representing Nissan.

"Did you not think to discuss [the improprieties] with the directors or others," said an attorney.

"No I did not," Onuma said. "I did not anticipate that any action would be taken."

It did not matter if a person was a senior executive, when it came to matters concerning compensation, "Ghosn held the authority, and you couldn't say anything that ran counter to his opinions," said Onuma.

A total of 24 court proceedings have been held in the Ghosn case since mid-September. There are still 50 more sessions scheduled through early next July. The dates for the closing argument have yet to be set.

This month, the former head of Nissan's legal affairs department and three others will undergo questioning. Taking the stand early next month will be Toshiyuki Shiga, Nissan's one-time chief operating officer said to have been one person who proposed the post-retirement compensation to directors.

The court hearings will later move forward to a foreign-born executive operating officer who struck a plea agreement with prosecutors prior to Onuma. Defense attorneys believe the deals took place at Nissan's behest, and it appears they will probe the sequence of events during questioning.

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