Carlos Ghosn, the ousted chairman of Nissan and Renault, marked his third month in custody this week, but is hoping to fight his way to freedom in the coming days with a new legal team headed by a Japanese all-star lawyer known as “the razor.”
On Nov. 19, Japanese authorities boarded a corporate jet carrying Ghosn shortly after it landed at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, unceremoniously hauling off the 64-year-old Ghosn and colleague Greg Kelly in handcuffs. The two are accused of participating in a series of financial misdeeds including the concealment of about $88 million in income.
While Ghosn has continued to plead innocence, his original legal team was unable to win the Brazilian-born executive bail and he has languished in solitary confinement in the Tokyo Detention Center where, in early January, his son told a French newspaper Ghosn had already lost 22 pounds.
The case has generated significant controversy. Despite what prosecutors claim is significant evidence of criminal behavior, critics question whether the case has more to do with Nissan’s desire to rid itself of foreign influence. The automaker was rescued from likely bankruptcy in 1999 by a $6 billion bailout from Renault. But with the French company now holding a 43.4 percent stake in the Japanese company, Renault has the power to unilaterally appoint Nissan board members and senior executives.
Ghosn had also been expressing interest in fully merging the two carmakers who had continued to operate as independent allies.
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“This is a coup,” said George Petersen, head of AutoTrends Consulting, reflecting comments made to NBC News by several current and former officials within the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.
The case has also raised questions about the Japanese justice system. Ostensibly, those accused of crimes can only be held in detention for 10 days, but while prosecutors agreed to have Kelly, a former Nissan adviser, released on bail on Christmas Day, Ghosn has repeatedly been denied his freedom. Authorities have piled on additional charges periodically to extend his stay behind bars and argued that Ghosn is not only a flight risk but could try to tamper with evidence.
At this point, few see a way out from the detention center for Ghosn before his trial starts, something Japanese media have said could take as much as six more months. In the meantime, the former Nissan boss continues to face interrogation and prosecutors have been pressuring him to sign a confession written in Japanese, a language he does not speak.
Ghosn has been seen only once in public since his arrest, during a brief court hearing in January in which he attempted to win bail. He has since granted one interview to the Japanese newspaper Nikkei. He insisted he was innocent and blamed his arrest on “plot and treason” by those at Nissan who wanted to depose him and prevent the merger of Nissan and Renault he supported.
In a statement issued last week, Ghosn repeated his stand, declaring, “I look forward to defending myself vigorously, and this represents the beginning of the process of not only establishing my innocence but also shedding light on the circumstances that led to my unjust detention.”
Ghosn has a new legal team pressing his case. It is headed by seasoned defense attorney Junichiro Hironaka, widely known as “the razor” and "Japan's Johnnie Cochran." In a country where prosecutors have a record of winning more than 90 percent of their cases, Hironaka has earned that reputation by clearing a number of high-profile defendants. Whether he can pull off a miracle for Ghosn is unclear, however.
“I expect that, in the end, there will be some sort of agreement in which Ghosn will be found guilty and sentenced to time served before he is told to leave Japan and never come back,” a long-time Nissan executive and confidant of Ghosn told NBC News after learning of the executive’s legal team shake-up.
Ghosn has so far appeared unwilling to go along with the prosecution. Beyond refusing to sign a confession, he has continued to argue that he is the victim of a coup, telling the court last month the allegations against him are “meritless and unsubstantiated.”
Ghosn’s legal troubles aren’t limited to what’s happening in Japan, however. For several months after his arrest, the European side of the alliance — as well as officials from the French government, Renault’s largest shareholder — appeared to be standing behind the executive. But, a month ago, Ghosn was pressured to resign as Renault’s CEO and chairman, and those duties were quickly split and assigned to two new executives.
Under the terms of his contract, Ghosn stood to take home more than $30 million, but, under pressure from the French government, Renault has now slashed that payout. The scandal-plagued executive may face a tough battle winning the money back.
Ghosn isn’t the only one tarnished by the scandal. Japanese prosecutors have also filed charges against Nissan, and a number of observers have questioned how it would have been possible for Ghosn to conceal payments without the knowledge of senior Nissan executives and board members.
At the center of the controversy is the automaker’s CEO Hiroto Saikawa, who is seen by some Japanese as a hero for helping reassert Nissan’s independence, and a villain by others who question whether he manufactured the case against Ghosn. The executive has said he now plans to step down.
Paul A. Eisenstein
Paul A. Eisenstein is an NBC News contributor who covers the auto industry.