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Arrest of ousted Nissan Chairman Ghosn invites conspiracy theories, talk of ‘a coup,’ among auto executives

If all had gone according to plan, Carlos Ghosn would have been winging his way to Amsterdam on his corporate jet Wednesday night en route to a potentially critical meeting of senior members of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance — of which he has long served as CEO.

Instead, the 64-year-old executive is in solitary confinement occupying a tiny cell in the Tokyo Detention Centre, where he’s been stuck since Nov. 19 when he was arrested minutes after arriving in the Japanese capital for a visit to alliance member Nissan’s headquarters. Following what was described as a “months-long” investigation, which Nissan said was triggered by a whistleblower, Ghosn stands accused of a number of financial irregularities. Chiefly, he’s accused of misusing company funds and underreporting his income at Nissan, where he served as chairman.

Ghosn reportedly failed to report about $82 million in compensation that was deferred until after his retirement, among other things, The Wall Street Journal said Thursday, citing an unnamed person familiar with Nissan’s investigation.

Mounting questions

But, as the investigation drags on without formal charges, there are mounting questions about what the case is really about.

Ghosn wouldn’t be the first senior industry executive to face allegations of financial abuses. But barring instances of bribery or other serious crimes, arrests are extremely rare.

If anything, a number of industry executives — as well as some Nissan insiders — are asking whether the Brazilian-born Ghosn has actually become a pawn in an increasingly bitter dispute between France’s Renault and Nissan over control of their global empire, according to interviews with at least a half-dozen people close to Nissan, the alliance or Ghosn himself. They asked not to be named because they still have strong ties to the industry or directly to Nissan.

Ghosn’s abrupt arrest, lack of charges and the timing — just before what was expected to be an important meeting of alliance leaders — has industry executives wondering whether the charges are justified or even real. His immediate dismissal from Nissan and lengthy detention, without being able to address the accusations, has elicited questions across the globe about the lack of due process, with even French officials weighing in.