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Ghosn Changes Defense Attorneys -- WSJ

14/02/2019 8:02am

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By Sean McLain in Tokyo and Nick Kostov in Paris 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (February 14, 2019).

Former Nissan Motor Co. Chairman Carlos Ghosn, facing trial in Japan on financial charges, replaced his legal team and brought in a lawyer noted for high-profile cases to lead his defense.

The move follows a series of legal disappointments for Mr. Ghosn, who has been in a Tokyo jail for nearly three months and has had requests for release on bail rejected.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, Mr. Ghosn said his decision to shake up his legal team was part of his preparation for trial.

"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," Mr. Ghosn said in the statement.

A person close to the Ghosn family said he made the change as part of a "move to a second phase, where he defends himself more vigorously." Mr. Ghosn's legal team is due soon to have its first pretrial hearing with the judge who will preside over the trial.

Motonari Otsuru had led Mr. Ghosn's defense since shortly after the business executive's arrest on Nov. 19. Mr. Otsuru's office said Wednesday that Mr. Otsuru and a colleague from the same law office were resigning from the case.

Mr. Otsuru will be replaced by veteran lawyer Junichiro Hironaka. Nicknamed "the Razor," Mr. Hironaka has won some of the most famous acquittals in Japan.

Messrs. Otsuru and Hironaka weren't immediately available to comment.

Tokyo prosecutors have charged Mr. Ghosn with underreporting his compensation in eight years of Nissan financial statements and with causing the auto maker to pay the company of a Saudi Arabian friend who helped Mr. Ghosn with a personal financial problem.

Mr. Ghosn has said he is innocent of the charges. He says he kept a record at Nissan of how much he thought he was worth but describes it as a hypothetical calculation that didn't bind Nissan to pay him anything beyond his publicly reported compensation. He says Nissan received valuable services from the Saudi company and paid it appropriately.

In interviews with Japanese and French media, Mr. Ghosn blamed his arrest and the charges against him on "a plot and treason."

During his stint as Mr. Ghosn's lawyer, Mr. Otsuru and his team didn't always appear on the same page publicly with Ghosn family members and their representatives in the U.S. and France. At one point, a family representative put out a statement in English in which Mr. Ghosn pledged to wear an ankle bracelet if granted bail, to show he wasn't a flight risk. But Japan has no system for monitoring suspects with such gear, making the pledge moot. The bail request was denied.

Mr. Otsuru, who doesn't speak English, served a decade ago as the chief of the special investigation division of the Tokyo prosecutors' office, the same office now going after Mr. Ghosn. His hiring brought with it an intimate knowledge of prosecutors' methods.

Mr. Otsuru sharply criticized aspects of the prosecutors' case, but he also showed some tolerance of the interrogation tactics of his former colleagues. He said it was acceptable for Mr. Ghosn to sign a Japanese document he couldn't read as long as the content was explained verbally in English, rejecting criticism of the practice by Mr. Ghosn's family.

A Nissan executive charged alongside Mr. Ghosn, Greg Kelly, chose a lawyer experienced in tough defense cases, Yoichi Kitamura, who hasn't hesitated to denounce what he calls human-rights violations by the prosecutors. Mr. Kelly, who is charged with helping Mr. Ghosn hide compensation on Nissan's financial statements, was released on Christmas Day and is living in Tokyo pending trial. He denies the charge. Prosecutors say they are treating the defendants fairly in accordance with the law.

Mr. Ghosn's new lawyer, Mr. Hironaka, used to work with Mr. Kitamura and shares his experience in winning not-guilty verdicts for controversial defendants.

Yoji Ochiai, a former prosecutor who isn't involved in the Ghosn or Kelly cases, said it's an opportune time to change up lawyers -- just before pretrial meetings with the judge get under way -- because it would be difficult for a new lawyer to enter the case after that. It could also be helpful for both defendants that their attorneys have worked together, Mr. Ochiai said.

Hours after the legal-team change-out in Tokyo, Renault SA, Nissan's alliance partner, said it won't pay Mr. Ghosn as much as EUR30 million ($33.9 million) in deferred compensation and severance payments. Renault's board also said it would waive its former CEO's two-year noncompete commitment, a pledge potentially worth more than EUR4 million to Mr. Ghosn.

The move follows a significant cooling of support for Mr. Ghosn inside the French auto maker. In the days immediately following Mr. Ghosn's arrest, Renault said it wouldn't rush to judgment, and kept him on as chairman and CEO. Mr. Ghosn eventually resigned those roles after it became clear he wasn't likely to win bail anytime soon.

Last week, Renault asked a French prosecutor to look into whether Mr. Ghosn misused a company sponsorship to stage a black-tie party at a Versailles château to celebrate his second marriage and his wife's birthday, according to people familiar with the matter. A Ghosn family representative said last week that Mr. Ghosn wasn't aware the free use of space granted for the party would affect Renault and has offered to reimburse the Palace of Versailles.

Renault's board didn't cite that probe for its actions on his severance, instead referring to a technical "presence" clause in his contract.

The person close to the Ghosn family said Wednesday the main concern was for the former executive's release, but said Mr. Ghosn was entitled to the remuneration being cut by Renault. "We consider that these indemnities are owed to Mr. Ghosn as a result of his contract, and from that point on there can be a discussion," the person said. "It's not the most important thing right now."

Write to Sean McLain at sean.mclain@wsj.com and Nick Kostov at Nick.Kostov@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 14, 2019 02:47 ET (07:47 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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