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Ex-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn said he was set up, new emails support claim

Ghosn has always maintained his innocence and said Nissan plotted to remove him -- now leaked emails appear to support his story.

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Carlos Ghosn

Ghosn has maintained his innocence since his arrest.

Behrouz Mehri/Getty Images

The curious case of Carlos Ghosn turned even more intriguing as alleged email correspondence between executives inside Nissan, the automaker that the fugitive former CEO previously headed, have come to light.

Bloomberg reported Sunday on a series of emails that date back to 2018 and largely revolve around Hari Nada, who ran Nissan's chief executive office. Between the emails and sources who spoke with the publication anonymously, Ghosn's theory of a setup -- largely dismissed until now -- holds more weight.

The sources and emails together paint a picture that hints at internal efforts to remove Ghosn and cast him aside to return more power to Nissan. Ghosn long worked to bring Nissan and its alliance partner, France's Renault, closer together. It's understood the ex-CEO and ex-chairman of the Renault-Nissan Alliance eyed a full-blown merger between the Japanese and French automakers.

One email in particular lends the most support to Ghosn's story. In mid-2018, Nada reportedly wrote to Hitoshi Kawaguchi, a senior manager at Nissan who oversees government relations, "neutralize [Ghosn's] initiatives before it's too late." Nada's work also reportedly extended to a memo circulated even to then-CEO Hiroto Saikawa, which called for ending the Renault-Nissan alliance's current agreement that barred Nissan's ability to purchase shares of the French automaker. The agreement has long been a sour note in the alliance as Renault, which has the French government's backing, essentially holds double voting rights over Nissan.

Nada allegedly told the then-CEO Ghosn grew agitated over Nissan's performance in April 2018. Nada reportedly said a "major disruption" could make Saikawa "the victim" should Ghosn execute on closer ties with Renault. Ghosn served as the alliance chairman after he chose Saikawa as his replacement at Nissan. Saikawa stepped down last September after Nissan discovered he was paid additional compensation.

Nada reportedly added in correspondence to Saikawa days before Ghosn's arrest that Nissan should be quick to state its position on the arrest.

The email chains also highlighted work Nada took to investigate various Ghosn-owned properties and an explanation from Nada that reportedly included bits about how the public may not fully grasp charges surrounding underreporting Ghosn's income. Instead, Nada pushed for breach-of-trust charges and reportedly wrote the plans should be "supported by media campaign."

Ghosn was arrested in November 2018 on charges of misreporting income to financial regulators, transferring personal losses onto Nissan's corporate book and transferring corporate funds for his own personal use. There is no suggestion in Bloomberg's report that Nissan executives confected evidence, rather that they sought to capitalize on the accusations against Ghosn. Nada is still at Nissan, but is now a special advisor rather than a senior vice president, according to Bloomberg.

After spending 100 days in jail and then being confined to house arrest, Ghosn smuggled himself out of Japan to Lebanon this January -- a caper that included him hiding in a musical instrument case. As a free man in Lebanon, and an international fugitive, Japan continues to work on extraditing Ghosn from the country, though the two countries do not hold such an agreement.

On the news of the alleged leaked emails, Nissan told Roadshow in a statement, "Nissan uncovered significant evidence of serious misconduct by Carlos Ghosn and Greg Kelly through a robust and thorough internal investigation managed by an external law firm.  While discussions about an optimal structure for the Alliance had been taking place for many months prior to his arrest, any argument that the discovery of Carlos Ghosn's misconduct formed part of a conspiracy to undercut or terminate Nissan's alliance with Renault is entirely false.  As announced last month, the Alliance has recently reinforced its collaboration model to enhance the ability of its member companies to capitalize on their individual strengths and to complement their respective strategies."

"We have been made aware of numerous documents repeatedly circulated to the media that we suspect were forged or falsified to suggest that they were sent by Nissan individuals.  We believe that several of these fake documents are referred to or quoted in Bloomberg's story. Nissan will continue to do the right thing by cooperating with judicial and regulatory authorities as necessary."

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First published June 15.
Update, June 16: Adds statement from Nissan.