Chairman, president and CEO of Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., Carlos Ghosn. Picture: AFP

TOKYO – Mitsubishi Motors executives on Monday ousted Carlos Ghosn as chairperson following his shock arrest for alleged financial misconduct, capping a stunning fall from grace for the tycoon credited with saving the scandal-hit Japanese firm.

The move follows Ghosn’s sacking as chairperson of Nissan as he faces questioning in a Tokyo detention centre over claims he under-reported his salary to the tune of $44 million over several years.

“During today’s board meeting, it was decided that he is dismissed as chairman,” the firm said in a statement following a gathering that lasted just over an hour.

The 64-year-old Brazil-born Frenchman rode to Mitsubishi Motors’ rescue in 2016 when the firm was battered by a fuel efficiency cheating scandal, tying it to his Nissan-Renault alliance and turning its fortunes around.

Together, the three-way alliance is the world’s top-selling car company, with some 10.6 million vehicles rolling off the production line. It employs around 450,000 people worldwide.

But the future of the tie-up is now uncertain as the talismanic Ghosn was seen as the glue binding together a fractious Franco-Japanese alliance with headquarters 10,000 kilometres apart.

A seven-person Nissan board decided unanimously on Thursday to jettison the once-revered leader “based on the copious amount and compelling nature of the evidence of misconduct presented,” said a company spokesperson.

Meanwhile, further claims continued to leak out in the Japanese media of Ghosn’s alleged misconduct.

Officially, prosecutors are looking into allegations that he conspired with another executive, American Greg Kelly, to understate his income by around $44 million between June 2011 and June 2015.

But the Asahi Shimbun said authorities are planning to re-arrest him on charges of understating his income by a further three billion yen – for a total of $71 million – for the following three fiscal years.

Under Japanese law, suspects can face additional arrest warrants, which can result in heavier penalties. The current allegations could see Ghosn facing 10 years behind bars and/or a 10-million-yen fine.

Separately, Kyodo has reported that Nissan paid $100,000 annually since 2002 to Ghosn’s sister for a fictive “advisory” role.

And the Mainichi Shimbun reported on Monday that Ghosn used Nissan’s corporate money to pay a donation to his daughter’s university and also charged family trips to the company.

Both Ghosn and Kelly have reportedly denied the allegations.

TANGIBLE CHANGES

Nissan’s current CEO Hiroto Saikawa told staff on Monday he was “shocked” at his former mentor’s alleged misconduct.

At a 45-minute meeting attended by hundreds of staff at the firm’s Yokohama HQ and broadcast internally to other sites, Saikawa stressed that the scandal should not affect day-to-day operations.

Saikawa, who rose through the Nissan ranks under Ghosn’s wing, has already spoken of his “great resentment and dismay” at the allegations and told staff he felt a “sense of powerlessness” in the current situation.

According to local media, Nissan formed a “secret” cell within the firm to look into the alleged financial misdeeds.

Executives accelerated the probe amid concerns Ghosn was working on a fully fledged merger between Nissan and Renault, Kyodo News said without naming its sources.

Renault is the dominant partner in the alliance, holding 43% of the shares in Nissan, but the Japanese firm outsells its French counterpart — sparking concern in Tokyo about the balance of power.

Renault, which is 15% owned by the French state, has decided to stick by Ghosn for now, appointing Thierry Bollore as interim boss while the current CEO and chairman is “incapacitated.”

France’s economy minister Bruno Le Maire has urged the Japanese firm to share “quickly” whatever evidence it has gathered and stressed Ghosn will stay at the helm of Renault “until there are tangible charges.”

However, Le Maire also said “I do not believe in a conspiracy theory” amid talk of a so-called “palace coup” within Nissan to prevent Ghosn merging the firm with Renault.

The difficulty now will be to find a replacement to lead the three-way alliance.

The statutes of the alliance, based in the Netherlands, state that Renault appoints the CEO and Nissan chooses the deputy.

A source close to the case in Paris told AFP: “The reality is that they are already looking for a replacement. Not to do so would be irresponsible. It needs to be someone palatable to the Japanese and the French.”

Investors appeared to be recovering from the initial shock of the arrest, which sent shares in all three firms tumbling.

At the Tokyo close, Nissan was up nearly 2% and Mitsubishi Motors enjoyed an even sharper bump — up more than 3% just ahead of the board meeting.

EWN