Bloomberg Businessweek|January 20, 2020
Matthew Campbell
SOMETIME LAST FALL, A SECURITY CONTRACTOR BASED IN Asia took a call that he found curious. The man on the other end of the line, a longtime acquaintance and, like him, an expert in protecting VIPs and valuable cargoes in challenging environments, was looking to hire for a job in Japan. He offered few specifics. The assignment would involve escorting someone out of the country, he said. It would pay well. And he was looking for operatives with military or police experience and, ideally, fair-skinned East Asian faces—the kind that wouldn’t stand out in Tokyo.

The contractor wanted to know more. Who would the operatives be protecting? What was the specific threat? Would the client be carrying cash or gold or something else of value? The caller wouldn’t say. The contractor was noncommittal but said he would get in touch if anyone else came to mind. They hung up, and the contractor didn’t really think about the job again—until he and the rest of the world saw the news about Carlos Ghosn.

Just before New Year’s, Ghosn, the ousted leader of Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA, completed a daring escape from Tokyo, where he was facing criminal charges that could have put him in prison for more than a decade. Despite being under intense surveillance while out on bail, with a camera trained on his front door and undercover agents tailing him when he left his house, Ghosn somehow made it to Lebanon, where he lived for most of his adolescence and is a citizen.

For Ghosn, who’d spent more than 100 days in solitary confinement in a Tokyo jail and was contemplating trial in a country where prosecutors virtually never lose, it was a stunning coup. Lebanon has a policy against extraditing its citizens, and as one of the most successful members of the country’s diaspora, he’s a national hero, with friends who include some of the biggest names in local business and politics. His face is on a postage stamp. Safely in Beirut, he could finally attempt to rebut the allegations against him, which he argues were the result of a conspiracy between nationalist factions, both within Nissan and the Japanese government, that were determined to take him out of play. And, most important for someone who spent the better part of two decades building and cultivating his public image, he could set to work restoring his reputation as a great man of business, maybe even preparing a comeback.

A few weeks after Ghosn’s escape, it’s not at all clear that he’ll be successful. While he is, for the foreseeable future, beyond the reach of Japanese law enforcement, his legal problems are nowhere near being resolved. Ghosn is still under investigation in France, where Renault is based, while the government of Japan has issued a so-called Red Notice in his name through Interpol, exposing him to possible arrest the moment he enters a country less hospitable than Lebanon. Japanese prosecutors have also obtained an arrest warrant for his wife, Carole, claiming she gave false testimony in their investigation. And the task of restoring his stature as one of the leading lights of global capitalism is enormous. Even some of his closest former colleagues remain unsure what to make of the allegations against him. It’s hard to imagine major corporations, banks, or investors agreeing to work alongside a man who’s officially a fugitive.

Gathered with his family in the country of his youth, Ghosn has undoubtedly upgraded his personal circumstances. What remains to be seen, though, is whether he’s simply traded one form of confinement for another.

WHILE OUT ON BAIL, GHOSN SPENT MUCH OF HIS TIME AT his lawyers’ office in central Tokyo, in an anonymous midrise building near the Imperial Palace. Forbidden under the terms of his release from accessing the internet anywhere else, he’d been given the use of a cramped meeting room with a bare table, a whiteboard, and a laptop. It was also the sole location where Ghosn was allowed to call Carole, and even then only with the approval of a Tokyo judge. From April, when he’d last seen her, to the end of the year, he received this permission twice: once in November, and again, for one hour, on Christmas Eve.

Being unable to see his wife was the hardest part of his ordeal, Ghosn would say later, an absence that “put me on my knees.” His mood only darkened on Christmas Day, after a pretrial hearing during which he learned that prosecutors wanted to delay the second of his two trials until 2021. In all, his lawyers told him, it might take five years to fully resolve his cases.

Ghosn was indicted four times, all for financial misconduct. The first two charges accuse him of underreporting his compensation in official filings, leaving out tens of millions of dollars that investigators say he intended eventually to get. In the third and fourth indictments, for breach of trust, prosecutors accused him of improperly benefiting from Nissan’s relationships with partners in the Arab world, and in one case of diverting $5 million of company money to his own ends via a car dealer group in Oman. Ghosn has denied wrongdoing, arguing that the compensation prosecutors claim was misreported was only hypothetical, and that he never misused Nissan funds. (He also settled a civil complaint from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which claimed he failed to adequately disclose his compensation, agreeing to a $1 million penalty without admitting the agency’s allegations.)

Most criminal defendants, in Japan or elsewhere, don’t have the option to simply exit their proceedings if they believe they can’t win. Ghosn—with ample financial resources and passports from Lebanon, France, and Brazil—did. For months, a team of more than a dozen security operatives, led by a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran, had been designing a plan to get him to Lebanon, the country where Ghosn has the most extensive connections. The secrecy was intense: Some of the participants, according to a person familiar with the operation, didn’t know the identity of the person they were going to extract, even after they’d accepted the job.


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January 20, 2020