American on trial in Japan gets support from ex-boss Ghosn

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FILE - In this Sept. 15, 2020, file photo, former Nissan Motor Co. executive Greg Kelly arrives for the first trial hearing at the Tokyo District Court in Tokyo. Former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn has backed his former colleague American lawyer Kelly's insistence on his innocence of any wrongdoing. (Kiyoshi Ota/Pool Photo via AP, File)

TOKYO – Former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn has backed his former colleague American lawyer Greg Kelly’s insistence he is innocent of any wrongdoing.

Ghosn said in an interview with The Associated Press in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday that Kelly, a former Nissan executive vice president, had sought only legal methods to arrange post-retirement compensation for his boss.

Kelly was arrested at the same time as Ghosn in Tokyo in November 2018 and is charged with falsifying securities reports. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison. Ghosn fled Japan in late 2019.

Testimony and documents presented at Kelly’s trial have shown that he sought ways to beef up compensation for Ghosn after he agreed to a pay cut at Nissan in 2010, when Japan began requiring disclosures of high executive pay. Ghosn insisted Tuesday that no additional compensation agreements were approved by the board.

“Obviously he (Kelly) is innocent,” Ghosn said.

“Greg is probably the person, from all the teams I had, one of the most professional. Highest integrity person I know. That’s one of the reasons I trusted him,” Ghosn said.

At his trial, which began in September, Kelly has answered questions from his chief defense lawyer Yoichi Kitamura about discussions and documents related to Ghosn’s income.

Kelly has stressed his role was to ensure payments to Ghosn were legal.

Ghosn backed that view in the AP interview. That is significant because Ghosn’s voice has been absent in Kelly’s trial, though the defense team has had prosecutors’ records of their interrogations of Ghosn read aloud in the courtroom, a rare procedure in a Japanese trial.

“Nothing was decided. It was only brainstorming. And frankly to the end, nothing was decided,” Ghosn said in the interview this week.

“There was nothing illegal in this. This is the object of the trial of Greg Kelly.”

Ghosn, a superstar executive at Nissan Motor Co. for two decades, voluntarily took a pay cut of about 1 billion yen ($10 million) per year, roughly halving his income beginning in 2010.

Kelly has emphasized that one of the main aims of the discussions about Ghosn's compensation was to ensure he would not leave Nissan for a rival company. At the time of his arrest, Ghosn was chairman of the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi alliance.

In the interview with AP, Ghosn said he had been offered a job at General Motors Co. but was reluctant to leave Nissan, and Japan, after the blows from the global financial crisis and then triple disasters of a huge earthquake, a tsunami and nuclear meltdowns in March 2011.

Ghosn said GM turned down his proposal that it join the Nissan-Renault alliance.

In a hearing in Tokyo District Court on Wednesday, Kelly said that post-retirement payments were common at Nissan and often involved a “non-compete” clause barring the employee from working for a rival. In the case of Nissan North America that was a lifetime requirement.

Such agreements are rare in Japan, however, because of the loyalty engendered by the country's “lifetime employment system,” he said.

Ghosn and Kelly were the only Nissan officials arrested in the case.

Hiroto Saikawa, Nissan chief executive from 2017 until his 2019 resignation, was not charged, although his signature is on the same documents on Ghosn’s post-retirement pay along with Kelly’s.

“Greg Kelly is facing trial, while Saikawa is free. You know, what’s the big difference?” Ghosn told the AP.


Jeffrey Schaeffer reported from Beirut, Lebanon.