Carlos Ghosn, Former Nissan Exec, On Fleeing Japan

CNBC Transcript: Former Nissan Executive Carlos Ghosn Speaks with CNBC’s Michelle Caruso-Cabrera Today

Carlos Ghosn

WHEN: Today, Wednesday, January 8, 2020

WHERE: Interview aired on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” – From Beirut, Lebanon

The following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC interview with Former Nissan Executive Carlos and CNBC’s Michelle Caruso-Cabrera that aired on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” (M-F 3PM – 5PM) today, Wednesday, January 8th. Video from the interview is available on CNBC.com:

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Watch CNBC’s full interview with fugitive and former Nissan exec Carlos Ghosn

All references must be sourced to CNBC.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Thank you for doing this.

CARLOS GHOSN: You’re welcome.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Obviously, you masterminded this incredible escape out of Japan, worthy of a movie. How did you do it?

CARLOS GHOSN: Well, I did it by myself. Obviously, it was with the help of some people that I got to know. But as you know, I’m not going to develop this because I’m going to expose them. And you can imagine that I’m not going to take any risk. It’s people who have really dared to give me help into how to leave Japan without creating any trouble, which was the case.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: But tell me. You are stuck in a box for several hours. Right? Breathing through air holes. What is that like?

CARLOS GHOSN: I’m not going to confirm or say anything. What I can tell you that it is obviously, you know, you have a lot of anxiety when you are in a period where you are transiting out of the country but you’re not still out of reach. But when you go through an experience like mine, you know, where I’ve been arrested on the 19th of November 2018 and been through very, very tough times with a lot of adventure, I would say, you’re numb. Somehow, your ability to feel the situation in which you are is diminished. Because you protect yourself by numbing yourself.

So, I would say that it would be fair to say that between November 19, 2018 up to the 30th of December 2019, when I arrived to Beirut, it was a little bit of a period where it’s kind of parentheses in my life. I thought that I was in a completely different way. I was feeling completely differently. And somehow, I am reborn since I arrived here. So, when you tell me what were your emotion? Yes, I had some emotion, but somehow, they were diminished compared to what I’m feeling now.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: And when you finally got out and got to Lebanon?

CARLOS GHOSN: It’s a rebirth. It’s a rebirth. I mean, first face I’ve seen – the face of my wife in the house of her parents. I can’t tell you the joy I had to just be simply with her. After spending nine months not being able to talk to her, not being able to see her, with absolutely no end inside for this kind of ridiculous ban that they put on me, it was–it has a special taste. So, in a certain way, it helps you put back priority in your life about who are the people are the most important, what are the things you should be doing. I’m a different man today.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: How much did it cost?

CARLOS GHOSN: I’ve seen a lot of numbers circulating in the press. I think they are very, very generous, in general.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Too high?

CARLOS GHOSN: Yeah. So, that’s what I can tell you. I don’t think you need this kind of money to be able to organize. Obviously the simpler the–it is, the better it is, the more chance you have to be successful, and the more discreet you will be.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: You probably don’t realize this because you’re not in the United States. But you may have just walked into what is a huge controversy in the United States about bail reform, about the poor not being able to pay bail, but the rich being able to do so, and that the justice system is inherently better for the rich. What would you say to people that think you exemplify that?

CARLOS GHOSN: Well, unfortunately for me, I didn’t have this problem in the United States. But at least in the United States, you have a rule of law, and you have some, you have an established justice. And well, I didn’t benefit from that in Japan. So, I don’t think—somehow, I had the feeling in Japan, that, because you were supposed or because you have a reputation to be powerful and you’ll be rich, things are going to be applied to you in a much more rigorous way to prove that justice is the same for everybody.

So, I’ve been through a period of time where, somehow, everybody talking about me says, ‘But, he’s just decidable like anybody else.’ So somehow, instead of being above the law, you start to feel like you are below the law. Which is the people want to implement for you things that usually they would not implement for regular people, just because they feel bad about looking like they’re helping somebody who is rich, ectara.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: –Being soft on you.

CARLOS GHOSN: So, I’m not talking about the United States, I don’t know the tradition. But there are some countries where you have to be careful that, in a certain way, you don’t create a situation where people because they have some advantageous situation for whatever reasons, they’re being treated in a different way than normal people.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Any regrets about Greg Kelly, your subordinate, your co-defendant, who’s still there?

CARLOS GHOSN: Greg is a great person. And, if he is where he is, it’s because he is an honorable person. He refused–I’m sure he refused a plea bargain that would put him out, but that would mean that he would have to say something different from his own conviction.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Did you try to help him get out? Did you think about trying to get him out at the same time? Or?

CARLOS GHOSN: I couldn’t—I couldn’t contact him. I was forbidden from any contact with Greg. So, even he was in Tokyo while I was in Tokyo, were totally forbidden as one condition of my bail is no contact with Greg Kelly whatsoever.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Let’s talk about the charges against you. You’re not going to face them in Japan. But people in United States could see if they Google it, but there’s an SEC settlement from last year, where you paid $1M, Nissan paid $15M for — to settle charges about you hiding compensation. And when you read that, the accusations against you, it sounds like you were trying to defer a lot of payment until retirement. Is that true? Is that what was happening?

CARLOS GHOSN: No. No, I was not deferring anything because when you defer that means you acquired something. I did not acquire anything. What was the situation, and we tried to explain it, and frankly, the fact that we had an agreement with the SEC is no admit and no denial.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Right. You did not admit—

CARLOS GHOSN: And they signed it. It just made it to be able to concentrate on Japan. Because you cannot open to France at the same time. It’s too much. But, in fact I didn’t acquire anything.

Because the so-called deferred compensation was not signed by the board, but not signed by any representative director. It was kind of a memo that I’ve done to myself, with the help of somebody, to keep track of the difference between my compensation as the CEO of Nissan and the average compensation of a CEO of a similar company, followed by, you know by, Watson. You know, we have the, the report, the general report about compensation.

That’s it. That’s the document which has been used by the prosecutor to say, ‘Oh, you are hiding compensation that should be paid to you.’ We are–what we were saying it was not fixed, it was not decided, and it was not paid. So, there is no reason for the whole thing. And I can tell you that, if, and again, I shouldn’t talk about the case in the United States because I committed when I signed the agreement: no denial, and no acceptance.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: But, when I read it, though, it sounds like the reason you didn’t get the money is because you hadn’t retired yet. So, when you say you never got the money, that’s because you weren’t supposed to get it until down the road.

CARLOS GHOSN: Well, after you retire, the person deciding on the compensation is in your board, and you’re not part – because by definition, if you’re retired, you’re not part of the board. So, how can you say that it is decided if the people who have to pronounce on these compensations are unknown? Because, after you retire, you don’t know who’s managing the company, you don’t know who is a member of the board and what kind of decision has been made.

So, how can you report a compensation which has not been defined, because we didn’t know exactly what was the amount, has not been decided, because the people who are going to decide on the compensation will come in many years to come, and it has not been paid. It doesn’t make sense. I want to tell you one thing.

We went to Professor Tanaka, which is the reference in terms of corporate law and compensation in Japan, University of Tokyo, it’s kind of the Harvard Law School of Law of Japan. He said – we give him all the facts, because now we have all the facts from the prosecutor. We gave him all the facts. You know what the Professor Tanaka said? He said, it’s a shame for Japan that Carlos Ghosn was arrested for this. That’s what he said.

So, we are waiting for him to make the statement. But all–that’s why I’m saying this is a plot, because you’ve been arrested for this? You went to prison for this? Without any–without any prior notice? With the understanding that I will sit down with somebody who is going to explain Mr. Ghosn this memo is questionable. Nothing like this. Went to prison, and then the investigation starts.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: You’ve used the word plot, you’ve used the word conspiracy –

CARLOS GHOSN: Yes. Yes.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: against you. Why would they want to do something to you?

CARLOS GHOSN: Well, I explained two reasons. First reason is the decline of the performance of Nissan where I started to be extremely frustrated with the management, that in fact I put in place. Particularly with Saikawa.

So, he was very nervous about his job. Because he knew that, you know, me representing Renault with 43% of the shareholders, I had the power to remove him from the job at any moment, which in a way is justified because the performance of the company was declining. That’s the first reason. The second reason as I said, there is a lot of people who really did not like a kind of merger with Renault.

And, as long as I was heading the alliance, they trusted that I would protect the autonomy of Nissan, I would protect Nissan from, you know, the fact that the French government wanted to interfere into a business that the Japanese did not like at all. And, but they said, ‘You know, well, why do we have to wait for this guy? Why don’t we get rid of him? And if we get rid of him, in a certain way we get rid of Renault. We get rid of their influence Renault has on us.’ And they were right.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: You’re saying that the desire to keep Nissan as a national champion was so strong, they were willing to destroy you and your reputation?

CARLOS GHOSN: Without any doubt. Without any doubt. Look what they’ve done. And lok at the statements that were made by Saikawa after I was arrested. Look at, look at the cooperation, the complicity between the prosecutor and Nissan, the support they got from the Japanese government. I mean the whole thing doesn’t make sense. I mean, for me it was obvious.

And they got what they wanted, except that Nissan today is running to the ground. This is the only thing they didn’t think about, is about will their people be able to run the company? And the answer so far, after 14 months, the answer is no. Because the company’s operating profit is going down. The growth has completely disappeared. The market capitalization of Nissan is going down by more than $10B dollars. Everything is going down.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: If people to order to read all the press reports, payments to Oman, the situation with Versailles, they could leave the impression that over time, whether on purpose, or due to poor bookkeeping that there was co-mingling of your personal finances, with corporate finance for that. Were there?

CARLOS GHOSN: Well, everything was built in order to let you think that. Nissan has built a very good case, with the help of Latham and Watkins and with the help of other people who are specialists of these kind of things. And they build an image, and they attacked through legal, and they attacked through the media. It was very well done, in a certain way.

So, a lot of people think, ‘Okay, well, this guy is shady. He’s doing all of these things.’ And while I was in prison, I couldn’t defend myself. And everything was done for me not to be able to talk. When I wanted to make a press conference in Tokyo, I was – I came back to prison 24 hours after.

They came with new charges. Immediately. So—and when the new prosecutor was named about two months ago, and the press in Japan was complaining to the prosecutor why do you forbid Carlos Ghosn to talk to the press? He said, ‘No, no, I’m not forbidding him to talk to the press. He can talk to the press.’ But, at the same time, as he is free to talk to the press, we are free to bring new charges. Which was thinly veiled threat that ‘If you open your mouth, you are going to go back.’ So, we want to end all of this. I want to be able to speak. I want to be able to defend myself.

And I want to justice system where attack and defense have the same rights, and its balanced and let the truth happen. And I was in the system where it’s not about the truth, it’s about winning, it’s about confession, it’s about, I think you are guilty, so I’m going to prove you are guilty. I don’t care about the truth. And I’m going to select all the things that are favorable to my theory and everything else, I’m going to reject it.’

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Prosecutors do that in the United States too generally though, don’t they?

CARLOS GHOSN: I think prosecutor everywhere in the world do it, but there is a limit to that. And then, you have a limit of power. I think, in the United States, the judge is the real boss. Well, in Japan, in my opinion, he’s not.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: You have a French passport.

CARLOS GHOSN: Yes.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: French citizenship.

CARLOS GHOSN: Yes.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: They don’t extradite.

CARLOS GHOSN: No.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Are you going to travel to France at all?

CARLOS GHOSN: Maybe. Yes. If – I mean I just arrived here. But I’m going to see with my lawyers if there is — what is the situation. I have the same thing with Brazil. Brazil does not extradite its citizens, and I have the Brazilian passport. Same thing in Lebanon. Blessed enough to have the three citizenships. And I am citizen of three countries who don’t extradite their citizens.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: What if you have to spend the rest of your life in Lebanon though. Are you ready for that?

CARLOS GHOSN: Well, it’s better than spending the rest of my life in Japan. That’s unfortunately the perspective that I was seeing. Because I didn’t have even a date for my trial. You know, the speedy trial is one of the basic elements, basic rights of any human being. I’ve been arrested in November 19. We were in December. 14 months later, I didn’t have a date for the trial. And then, you know, because the charges are different, there was, there were going to be two trials. So, we didn’t even have a date for the first trial.

So, I was looking at this and saying, ‘Oh my god. I mean, this is going to take four or five years.’ Because you have the trial, then you have the appeal. Then after the appeal you’re going to go through Supreme Court and all of this is very slow. On top of this, as you know, the trials are in Japanese. We asked for example, Greg Kelly was, as me, had the same request, to change the translator because we didn’t understand anything from the translator. They refused.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: They wouldn’t give you a translator?

CARLOS GHOSN: No. No. No, there was a translator, but we said what we don’t understand anything from the translator. We asked to change the translator because we don’t understand the translator. They refused. ‘Well, it’s refused.’ We asked for a simultaneous translation, because a lot of the debate that took place took 20 minutes, then the judge will make a summary in 30 seconds. We would love to follow what happened in the 20 minutes. And then he would say to the translator to translate.

Then, the translator would say something that was difficult to understand. So, the whole thing didn’t make any didn’t make any sense. I mean, we were not here with the real willingness to make us participate to our own trial. We are here with, you know, some rules. Okay. We need to we need a translator. Here is a translator. We don’t understand. We don’t care. This is it. You know, simultaneous translation, we have never done it. Simultaneous translation, never done it.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Anything I should have asked you, or you expected me to ask you?

CARLOS GHOSN: No. I think the only thing I want to tell you that I – you know, a lot of people perceive this that I am running from justice, which is really the last thing I want at all. If, if I had some reassurance that I would get the fair trial in Japan and if there was a possibility for my wife to join me in Japan, I would have stayed in Japan. Because this is the place where I should have defended my name and my reputation. But when they cut me from my wife, they don’t give me any perspective of seeing her again–again, before the trial start–which we are talking about two to three years down the road. Plus, I am facing in 99.4% conviction rate, which is a haunting number. Well, I was very anxious about the future. Yes, I was. I was very anxious.

MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Thank you for your time.



About the Author

Jacob Wolinsky
Jacob Wolinsky is the founder of ValueWalk.com, a popular value investing and hedge fund focused investment website. Prior to ValueWalk, Jacob was VP of Business Development at SumZero. Prior to SumZero, Jacob worked as an equity analyst first at a micro-cap focused private equity firm, followed by a stint at a smid cap focused research shop. Jacob lives with his wife and four kids in Passaic NJ. - Email: jacob(at)valuewalk.com - Twitter username: JacobWolinsky - Full Disclosure: I do not purchase any equities anymore to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest and because at times I may receive grey areas of insider information. I have a few existing holdings from years ago, but I have sold off most of the equities and now only purchase mutual funds and some ETFs. I also own a few grams of Gold and Silver