Carlos Ghosn Flirted With Hollywood, Then Delivered a Plot Twist


TOKYO — Carlos Ghosn, the fallen head of the Nissan-Renault auto alliance, didn’t know much about making movies, but he seemed willing to learn.

Sitting in his rented home in a tony Tokyo neighborhood one day in December, he walked John Lesher, a Hollywood producer behind the Oscar-winning 2014 Michael Keaton film, “Birdman,” through the plot of his own story, describing what he sees as his unjust imprisonment by Japanese officials and his struggle to prove his innocence, said people familiar with the discussions.

The theme was redemption. The villain was the Japanese justice system.

The talks were preliminary and did not get far, the people said. And in any case, Mr. Ghosn was preparing to deliver a shocking plot twist.

Mr. Ghosn, who was facing a trial later in 2020, fled Japan for Lebanon this week, avoiding criminal charges of financial wrongdoing. All the elements of a Hollywood-style thriller are there: a private plane whisking a fugitive into the sky, multiple passports, rumors of shadowy forces at work and people in power denying they knew anything about it.

Mr. Ghosn’s conversations with Mr. Lesher could offer a glimpse into his thinking in the days before his escape from a country that had kept him under heavy surveillance for months.

Prosecutors had accused Mr. Ghosn of underreporting his compensation and temporarily shifting his personal financial losses onto Nissan’s books, and a court had let him out of jail on bail totaling $13.8 million. As proceedings dragged on, Mr. Ghosn studied the cases of prominent defendants who had fought Japan’s justice system. He became convinced that he could never get a fair trial in Japan, with its 99 percent conviction rate, people who know him say.

Authorities around the world are only beginning to piece together the details of his escape.

Officials in Turkey detained seven people who they believe helped Mr. Ghosn flee, according to Turkish news outlets, including the state-run Anadolu news agency. He left Japan late Sunday aboard a business jet from Osaka to Istanbul Ataturk Airport, where he boarded a second plane and flew to Beirut, they reported. Also, Interpol put out a “red notice” on Mr. Ghosn, a Lebanese official said. Such an alert, akin to a wanted poster, is issued for individuals wanted for prosecution or to serve a sentence.

Four of the seven people detained in Turkey were pilots employed by a private aviation company, two were employees of a company that provides ground services to aircraft, and one was a manager of a private cargo company, according to the Turkish reports.

Once in Beirut, Mr. Ghosn met Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, and spoke to him about his legal issues, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who requested anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss it. Mr. Aoun has denied the meeting.

“Each country has its own history and culture, and systems,” he said at the time. “I wonder if it’s appropriate to criticize our systems just because ours is different from others.”

Despite the challenges, Mr. Ghosn continued to insist that he would prove his innocence in court. In the months leading up to his escape, he spent most of his time at Mr. Hironaka’s office, preparing for his trial, according to people familiar with his movements.

In his off hours, he lived in a Tokyo rental with bare walls and little more than a stair-climbing machine for furniture. Neighbors often saw him shopping for groceries at the local import market or eating croissants at his favorite French cafe around the corner. His daughters visited frequently, and his excursions with them — which took him as far afield as Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto — became fodder for Japanese reporters.

But the former chief executive, who had once traveled the globe as easily as most people go to the corner market, chafed at the unaccustomed restrictions on his movements, according to people familiar with his thinking.

As conditions on his bail, cameras above his door surveilled his comings and goings. His phone use was restricted, and he was not allowed to use the internet outside his lawyer’s office. And most egregiously, for him, in recent months the court allowed him only two brief phone calls with his wife, while lawyers listened in.

Throughout it all, he remained determined to defend his innocence in court. But his attitude took a dramatic shift on Christmas Day, according to a person familiar with his thinking. A Japanese court had just denied a request by his defense team to spend the holiday with his wife.

Instead, he found himself in a Tokyo courtroom, where his lawyers argued with prosecutors over the details of his upcoming trial.

Ben Dooley

2020-01-02 19:04:39

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