Ghosn Pushes Back on Audit Said to Turn Up $12 Million Costs

(Bloomberg) -- Carlos Ghosn and others flagged by an audit of Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA’s Dutch joint venture disputed findings of dubious expenses, saying their actions were proper and questioning the motivation of those who had shared the details to the media.

The audit, carried out by the French firm Mazars, highlighted 10.9 million euros ($12.2 million) in spending that went toward trips to the Cannes film festival, Rio de Janeiro Carnival and flights on a corporate jet that may have been personal in nature rather than related to Ghosn’s responsibilities, people familiar with the matter said. It also concluded that the Amsterdam-based RNBV venture lacked oversight, said the people, who asked not to be named discussing private findings.

Ghosn Pushes Back on Audit Said to Turn Up $12 Million Costs

“The relentless campaign to impugn Carlos Ghosn’s reputation is contemptible,” according to an emailed statement on behalf of the 65-year-old executive that was sent by a spokesman. “This is part of a well-orchestrated effort to turn Mr. Ghosn into a caricature and dismantle his reputation for integrity and excellence built over several decades. All of these expenses were both authorized and tied to legitimate business purposes.”

The RNBV audit, along with parallel probes at Nissan and Renault, have lent support to allegations Ghosn abused his power as head of the carmakers’ two-decade alliance. He has maintained he’s the victim of a corporate coup.

While the venture’s audit identified expenses deemed questionable, it made no determination on whether they amounted to wrongdoing, according to the people. That would require further investigation. French newspaper Le Figaro earlier reported the total.

Renault and Nissan didn’t respond to requests for comments.

Multiple Probes

Ghosn, who was chief executive officer of Renault and chairman of the two carmakers and third partner Mitsubishi Motors Corp., is facing trial in Japan for alleged financial crimes including funneling millions of dollars from Nissan through an intermediary. He’s denied all the charges, which stem from an internal probe by Nissan. Renault has also carried out its own investigation and last month raised concerns that rules on spending and ethics had been contravened. RNBV, which was charged with overseeing the carmakers’ alliance, is now mostly dormant.

The latest findings at RNBV found the venture paid more than 1.7 million euros for Ghosn and his guests to attend the Cannes festival, where Renault was a sponsor, while trips in 2016 and 2018 to the Rio Carnival were also flagged as questionable, one of the people said. RNBV also paid $2 million to charities in Lebanon, where Ghosn is a citizen, one person said. His use of a corporate jet was also found to be potentially problematic, with personal flights valued at close to $5 million according to one of the people.

The use of the company’s private jet was for business purposes, according to the Ghosn spokesman. Renault was a partner at Cannes since 1983, and received some 60 million euros’ worth of free press coverage of its cars at the 2018 event, the spokesman said. Nissan has a large presence in Brazil, with a production plant in Rio, and attendance at Carnival is common among major companies and their partners, he said, likening it to events like the Super Bowl in the U.S. and the French Open tennis tournament in France.

Regarding the charitable contributions made by RNBV, Ghosn’s spokesman referred to sponsorship by Renault’s foundation of 42 academic institutions around the world. Saint Joseph University in Lebanon, where the foundation supports a road-safety program, is among the top schools in the Middle East, the spokesman said.

RNBV payments flagged by Mazars also included money paid to Lebanese lawyer Carlos Abou Jaoude, the people said. These were made through a bank account that wasn’t disclosed to the RNBV finance department, and was also used to pay Renault’s general secretary, Mouna Sepehri, and the wife of another attorney, Fadi Gebran, after his death, one of the people said.

Abou Jaoude, who has previously confirmed he worked for Ghosn personally and for RNBV, said in an email that he advised on the enforceability of the amicable divorce settlement reached between Carlos Ghosn and his ex-wife Rita in October 2012. He said his firm, Abou Jaoude & Associates, gave legal advice to Nissan and RNBV under a contract that ran between 2013 and 2018.

Over the period, Abou Jaoude’s firm made payments and advances totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars to RNBV suppliers, at the car venture’s request, which were repaid by Nissan and/or RNBV, he said.

“All payments received from RNBV or Nissan were paid in the ordinary course of business, based on signed agreements and corresponding invoices,” Abou Jaoude said in an email, adding that there is no suggestion of wrongdoing by his firm.

In an email, Sepehri -- a key Ghosn aide when he ran the alliance -- said that as a Renault employee she was asked to do work at the venture by the French carmaker’s board, and she wasn’t involved in how her pay was set up. She also said she wondered about the motivations of people who suggest the payments would be questionable or suspicious.

According to Ghosn’s spokesman, Gebran’s widow presented a final unpaid bill for service the lawyer had rendered to Nissan prior to his death.

Versailles Events

Auditors also questioned an alliance event at Palace of Versailles that took place on Ghosn’s 60th birthday in March 2014. Celebrated chef Alain Ducasse received 35,000 euros as a consultant for the party, billed as a celebration of the partnership’s 15-year anniversary. The Ghosn spokesman denied the event was meant to celebrate his birthday, pointing out that the CEO hosted a separate, private dinner for that purpose, with separate invitations for each party.

The Dutch venture lost most of its role in managing the alliance following Ghosn’s arrest in November. In March, new Renault Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard and Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa unveiled a new structure that has so far failed to ease tension between Renault and Nissan.

“Unable to support charges of misconduct against him, certain interested parties are now desperately searching for anything to justify their unconscionable overreaching rather than focusing on putting their business back on track,” the Ghosn statement read.

Shares of Renault, based in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, were little changed at 60.9 euros as of 10:24 a.m. in Paris.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.