Since Carlos Ghosn’s dramatic escape to Lebanon a year and a half ago to avoid trial in Japan, his main legal risks have shifted to France, where the former auto executive is accused of siphoning Renault SA funds to pay for a yacht and his wife’s birthday party.
On Monday morning, a delegation of French investigators began questioning the former chairman of Renault, Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. in Beirut. Here are details of the French case and what’s at stake for him:
Where is it happening?
Ghosn’s interrogation is taking place at the Grand Hall of the Criminal Court of Cassation on the fourth floor of the Justice Palace in Beirut. The venue had to be big enough to fit the many lawyers and investigators who are attending the hearing, including Lebanese prosecutor Imad Qabalan.
French investigators are scheduled to stay in Lebanon for a week.
Why isn’t Ghosn traveling to France?
France doesn’t usually extradite its nationals. But if it did in this case, Ghosn may well have been in jeopardy on the way there from Lebanon. One potential nightmare scenario for him would have been the rerouting of his plane mid-flight to a country that might be willing to extradite Ghosn to Japan.
While rare, it isn’t unheard of for French investigative magistrates to travel abroad to interrogate suspects and it won’t be a first for Serge Tournaire, who’s leading part of the Ghosn investigation. Two years ago, Tournaire went to Djibouti to interrogate and charge a former banker caught up in a probe focusing on alleged covert Libyan funding for Nicolas Sarkozy’s victorious 2007 presidential campaign.
What exactly is Ghosn accused of?
French authorities are investigating the former auto executive’s interactions with a car distributor in Oman and spending on events and trips that may have been personal, as well as payments made by a Dutch subsidiary of Renault and Nissan to consultants.
Many of the suspicions weighing upon Ghosn stem from information given by Renault to prosecutors, including a warning about payments worth millions of euros made to car dealer Suhail Bahwan Automobiles. Some of the money may have been used to pay for the family’s yacht and to fund the start-up company of his son Anthony. Ghosn has denied these accusations.
Parties at the Versailles Palace will also feature prominently, with questions about an event that took place on Ghosn’s 60th birthday and the celebration of his wife’s 50th birthday.
Ghosn conceded in a TV interview last year that he may have made “a mistake” in accepting a proposal by the palace to use a hall free of charge to celebrate his wife’s birthday. But he added that he was never told that the gift was deducted from credit Renault earned by being a sponsor.
The last set of allegations concern consultant payments made to French politician and lawyer Rachida Dati and security expert Alain Bauer. But both Dati and Bauer have already been interrogated by investigative magistrates in France and neither of them was charged.
In a statement released Monday morning, Ghosn’s lawyers complained about “procedural irregularities” in the French probe, which they say are due to the fact that most of the evidence stems from the Japanese investigation.
What happens at the end of the questioning?
If Ghosn is convincing, maybe nothing will immediately happen or he could be named a material witness, which is an intermediate status.
If Ghosn’s explanations don’t dispel French investigative magistrates’ suspicions, the former auto-executive will likely be charged in a process known as “mise en examen” triggered when there are serious or consistent clues showing likely involvement.
Paradoxically, Ghosn is actually in favor of being charged in the French case, according to his lawyers. They point out that it would enable his defense team to lodge procedural challenges and petition for certain witnesses to be heard rather than being excluded from the investigative process.
Things could get more awkward for Ghosn if the magistrates go for another option and decide to issue an arrest warrant. That might make it trickier for the former Renault boss to influence the investigation as he would probably not have access to documents in the case file.
If the accusations stand, how would a French trial play out?
Whether or not Ghosn gets charged, the investigation will continue. It’s only at the very end of the probe that investigative magistrates decide who should face trial. Complex French investigations typically take years to be concluded.