A lot was said in the 20-minute interview.
The former boss of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, one of the largest carmakers in the world, has spoken directly to the press for the first time since his shocking arrest on the tarmac of the Haneda Airport in Japan last November. Carlos Ghosn, 64, was dressed in a blue fleece jacket and grey sweatpants when he sat down with the Nikkei Asian Review for a 15-minute interview, which was only extended to 20-minutes at the discretion of a kind prison guard.
The Tokyo District Court gets to decide who inmates get to see during detention, and Ghosn has so far been barred from meeting with family members and employees of Nissan. It was a rare occurrence for the media to be granted an interview with Ghosn, as prominent businesspeople in detention are usually kept at an arms length away from the press. This was evident when Ghosn sat down, kicking off the interview by saying “we don’t have much time” from behind the acrylic glass partition.
*This is obviously not the actual interview.
Ghosn categorically denies wrongdoing in the slew of charges against him, which primarily centre around misappropriated funds, underreported compensation, and improper payments to a particular Alliance partner in the Middle East. Ghosn says that the accusations are a “distortion of reality,” and reflect a “plot & treason” from within Nissan that he says was motivated by his intentions to further integrate the Alliance.
The French government (a 15% shareholder of Renault) had in the past instructed Ghosn to make the complex shareholding web that binds the three Alliance partners “irreversible,” and it was his plan to make that a reality that caused enough unrest within Nissan to prompt his ousting. He had discussed his intentions with Nissan boss Hiroto Saikawa back in September. That meeting was supposed to also include Mitsubishi boss Osamu Masuko too, but “Saikawa wanted it one-on-one.”
The plan was to bring the three companies closer together, which would have afforded each company “autonomy under one holding company,” which Ghosn said would not have changed the operations of the three automakers, merely the structure in which they were all held in place. But Nissan executives were concerned that this would further concentrate power under Ghosn, whose near two-decade reign they have described as a “dictatorship.”
“People translated ‘strong leadership’ to ‘dictator,’ to distort reality, [with the] purpose of getting rid of me.” – Carlos Ghosn, Former Chairman, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance
He also talked about the breach-of-trust charges, which focus on some US$14.7-million paid from Nissan coffers to Khaled Al-Juffali, a prominent Saudi Arabian businessman. Ghosn dismissed the accusations, saying that “the executive in charge of the region signed [the approval for payment],” which was made from a pot of money called the “CEO reserve,” previously described as a fund that he had entire discretionary power on how to spend.
“[The] CEO reserve is not a black box, [and] four officers signed [off on payments made to Al-Juffali].” – Carlos Ghosn, Former Chairman, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance
Deference to partners within the group was a recurring theme of the interview, with Ghosn also saying that the purchases of luxury properties in Rio de Janeiro & Beirut (which Nissan says were paid for improperly through a subsidiary company) were all approved by the company. He even dropped a name saying that “Hari Nada has done all this,” in an assurance that all he’d done was above board.
“[Have I] done [something] inappropriate? I am not a lawyer, I don’t know the interpretation of [such] facts. These are known by everybody, [but] why didn’t they tell me?” – Carlos Ghosn, Former Chairman, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance
The former executive wrapped up the interview by stating that he “won’t flee,” a concern that was raised by Japanese prosecutors before the court denied Ghosn bail. He says that he “will defend myself” and that “all the evidence is with Nissan, and Nissan forbids all employees to talk to me.”