Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn: the Great Escape

You may have seen headlines about “Ghosn” and “Nissan” in the past few months. But if you’re like most of us, you were busy with the holidays and couldn’t be bothered to read all the articles. Which is understandable, because it’s a lot to keep up with. In fact, it’s a pretty crazy story, so let us catch you up!

The Ghosn in question is Carlos Ghosn, former CEO of Nissan-Renault. An auto industry veteran with a distinguished (in a good way, up until now) career, he was credited with a turnaround of both Nissan and the extra-troubled French carmaker Renault. And anyone familiar with Renault’s history knows that was no small feat—it earned him the nickname “Le Cost Killer.”

He was a powerful and respected figure in the industry, until it all started to go wrong in the past 14 months or so. There are conflicting accounts of what, exactly, happened (and when), but here are some of the general details.

Let them eat cake!

Ghosn seems to have acquired—perhaps influenced by his second wife, Carole, whom he married in 2016—a taste for really extravagant entertaining in recent years. Like a $700,000 soiree at Versailles in 2016. In fairness, it was a combination wedding reception and 50th birthday party for Carole. (So, props for cost-efficiency!)

Versailles table setting for the wedding/birthday soiree that Ghosn thought was “a gift.

But wait… Ghosn explained last month that he was shocked when he found out the Versailles affair had been billed to Renault/Nissan—he had thought it was a gift from Versailles, because Renault (under his leadership) had been a generous benefactor to the historic estate. (Easy mistake, right?)

Renault was not amused to discover that the company had paid for much of the celebration. Because while the carmaker was a generous sponsor of Versailles’ renovations, they had never actually signed up to be a sponsor of Ghosn’s personal celebrations.

It all devolved from there (full timeline at end of this article), with corporate and criminal probes opened in Japan and France. Allegations range from embezzlement and misappropriation of funds to inaccurate reporting of compensation. Ghosn has now been arrested four times, and last month he jumped his $14 million bail and fled Japan (where he was under house arrest) in an escape worthy of a blockbuster heist movie.

The ever expressive Carlos Ghosn

Like the turnaround of Renault, Ghosn’s escape from Japan was no mean feat. He’s been called “one of the most recognizable” executives in the world, and that’s true—not only due to the high-profile nature of his job, but because the guy is, well, distinctive looking. And while his collection of passports speaks to several ethnicities (his heritage is primarily Lebanese, though he was born in Brazil), Japanese isn’t one of them. So it would have been tough for him to blend in. Especially in Japan.

And Japanese authorities were keeping close tabs on him, because they considered him a significant flight risk (spoiler alert: they were right!) Seriously, the guy has four passports—1 Lebanese, 1 Brazilian, and for some reason, two French), a private jet, and tens of millions of dollars. All but one of his passports were confiscated. (He was allowed to keep one of the French ones, for some reason.)

How did he do it?

Conflicting details have started to emerge on how, exactly, Ghosn made it out of Japan. 

By most accounts, his wife, Carole, was the mastermind behind the great escape. She enlisted the help of two security professionals, one with a US firm (a former Green Beret, no less), and one with a Lebanese firm.

Sources close to Ghosn say his daring escape was prompted by the fact that his trial might be delayed until April 2021, that he was barred from communicating with his wife, and—to really add insult to injury—his internet access was restricted. 

Disappearing act

One report has Ghosn leaving Tokyo on an Osaka-bound bullet train. But another report (which we prefer, because it’s much more interesting and will be far more exciting to watch when these events are recreated for the inevitable Netflix movie) alleges that Ghosn was smuggled out in a “large musical instrument case.” In that version, a band (or a group of men disguised as a band) that was hired to play at a dinner gathering at Ghosn’s home smuggled him out when they left.

Because when you’re under house arrest, you should definitely not allow it to cramp your style where catered dinner parties with hired bands are concerned. (And tens of millions of allegedly embezzled dollars can throw a lot of allegedly awesome dinner parties!)

We have so many questions: what kind of band? What kind of instrument case? Cello? Tuba?  Some reports say it was a double-bass case. (Ghosn is a demure 5’6”, so there were probably a number of options, case-wise.)

Ghosn may have escaped Japan in a double bass case similar to this one.

However he managed to get out of Tokyo, he ended up on a private jet that landed in Istanbul; even the jet’s pilot claims to be unaware of his presence onboard. From Istanbul, he landed in Beirut, where he is seemingly home free; Lebanon (where he grew up) doesn’t have an extradition agreement with Japan.

Here are the details of the saga leading up to the escape.

Timeline

January 9, 2020 

Arrest warrant issued for Ghosn’s wife, for alleged perjury.

January 2, 2020

Interpol issued a warrant for Ghosn’s arrest to Lebanon. Turkey launched an investigation (as he apparently fled to Lebanon via Instanbul.)

December, 2019

Had agreed to not contact his wife, but apparently hadn’t explicitly agreed not to flee the country. Or if he had, he lied. Because he did flee, to Lebanon. Which was sort of impressive on his part, considering that he was monitored by video cameras outside his residence, had surrendered his passports, and the only computer he was allowed to use was one that was set up in his lawyer’s office.

As you might imagine, it also left Japanese officials with some explaining to do.

(He left his Tokyo residence after a private security firm hired by Nissan stopped monitoring him, three sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.)

April 25, 2019

Released on bail again ($14 million, this time), after agreeing to “curbs on contacting his wife.”

April 4, 2019

Arrested for the 4th time, on further claims of financial misconduct.

March 2019

After being held since January, Ghosn posted $9 million bail and slipped past reporters disguised in a hat, glasses, and a surgical mask. 

January 2019

Appears in court, denies all accusations of financial misconduct.

December 2018

Arrested again, for allegedly using Nissan funds to cover over $16 million in personal investment losses.

November 2018

Ghosn was arrested by Japanese police when he landed (in his private jet) in Tokyo. The charge? Underreporting his income by about 50%, for several years.

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