TOKYO — Japanese prosecutors indicted former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn on Monday on a charge of underreporting his pay in securities reports, while also charging his American close aide, Greg Kelly, and Nissan itself on the same grounds.
Ghosn, one of the world’s most successful and charismatic auto executives, was arrested with Kelly on Nov. 19 and later removed from his post by Nissan’s board.
But the car company’s French partner, Renault, has kept Ghosn as its chairman and chief executive, and the arrest has exposed splits in the alliance between the two companies.
It also has ignited controversy worldwide about whether he is being treated fairly and whether a Japanese business executive would face the same treatment here.
Prosecutors indicted Ghosn, Kelly and Nissan on charges of violating the Japan Financial Instruments and Exchange Act by making false disclosures in annual securities reports, Nissan said.
They also effectively prolonged the men’s detention by rearresting them on a similar charge, arguing that they continued to commit the same offense for a longer period than first stipulated, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported.
The first charge had covered company statements filed for five years through March 2015, while the new charge would apply to the subsequent three years, the newspaper reported.
That means Ghosn and Kelly could remain in detention at least until Dec. 30.
The French government has said it has not seen evidence that Ghosn — a Brazilian-born French citizen of Lebanese descent — committed a crime, while the government of Lebanon, where Ghosn also holds citizenship and is viewed as somewhat of a hero, has questioned the basis of his arrest and protested that he has been humiliated in detention.
The case also has highlighted the powers wielded by prosecutors in Japan, where suspects can face long periods of detention and interrogation without lawyers present and where conviction rates average more than 99 percent.
Prosecutors have alleged that Ghosn concealed a side agreement with Nissan under which he would receive tens of millions of dollars in additional compensation after his retirement. But Kelly’s attorney maintains that no payment was actually made and that no firm agreement had been reached on the amount to be paid.
Nobuo Gohara, a lawyer and former prosecutor, described any such side agreement as a relatively “trivial” crime that would not significantly affect Nissan’s shareholders. Even after three weeks of interrogation and intense investigation, prosecutors have not been able to find evidence of a more substantive crime, he noted.
Yasuyuki Takai, another lawyer and former prosecutor, disagreed, arguing that underreporting executive compensation is a significant issue that reflects the company’s governance, compliance and organizational management.
But Philippe Faure, a former French ambassador to Japan, told the Mainichi Shimbun that he was “stunned” by the arrest and that Japan should provide details of its suspicions.
“Democratic countries don’t do it this way,” he said.
Gohara also questioned the legality of rearresting Ghosn in connection with what is essentially one allegation: that he entered into an agreement with Nissan that was not declared in securities reports.
“They should effectively be interpreted as ‘one crime,’ ” Gohara said.
Japanese prosecutors are supposed to release or indict suspects after 20 days, but they often get around that requirement by rearresting a suspect on a new charge, setting the clock back to zero.
In this case, Gohara said, prosecutors’ decision to divide the alleged offense into two time periods raised the suspicion that they had deliberately “reserved” the second period to allow themselves room to rearrest him.
“This is an unjustifiable detention,” he said.
The allegations have served as a reminder of Ghosn’s high pay and lavish lifestyle, long a source of controversy despite his success in turning around the fortunes of Renault and Nissan.
Japanese media outlets have reported on allegations that Nissan’s money was used to buy and maintain luxury homes in Amsterdam, Beirut, Paris and Rio de Janeiro, although there was no indication that this formed part of Monday’s indictment.
Many experts say Ghosn may have been a victim of a power struggle within Nissan, whose Japanese management team is known to have been unhappy with his plans to link the automaker more closely to Renault.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Ghosn was also about to replace Nissan chief executive Hiroto Saikawa before his arrest derailed the plan.
On the day of the arrest, Saikawa held a news conference in which he stated his “resentment” and “dismay” about his former boss and mentor’s alleged misconduct.
Nissan has worked closely with prosecutors throughout the investigation but ultimately could not avoid liability — and a probable fine — if a crime is found to have been committed, legal experts say, because it would have had to sign off on all securities reports.
Nissan said Monday it takes the situation “extremely seriously.”
“Making false disclosures in annual securities reports greatly harms the integrity of Nissan’s public disclosures in the securities markets, and the company expresses its deepest regret,” it said in a statement.
Gohara noted that by extending the charges to cover the past three years, prosecutors should also really have arrested Saikawa, as he must have known the details of any agreement reached with Ghosn and is ultimately responsible for the accuracy of the securities reports.
“I am worried that Japan’s legal system will truly lose the trust of the global business world as a result of this,” he said.
Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.