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Extraditing The Escape Artists

Nissan Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn.
Carlos Ghosn on a visit to Norway in 2013. Photo by Norsk Elbilforening.

Carlos Ghosn’s cinematic escape from a harsh and coercive pretrial detention in Japan was cheered in some quarters, including this column – but they aren’t applauding at the U.S. Justice Department.

Which makes me wonder whether Ghosn’s embarrassment of Japanese justice has gotten tangled in America’s geopolitical chess match with China.

Although it quickly sank in a wave of more pressing news, the May 20 arrest in Massachusetts of two Americans for allegedly helping Ghosn flee Japan for Beirut is a pretty big story. Michael Taylor, a former U.S. Green Beret, and his son Peter were picked up on a Japanese warrant for their role in helping Ghosn escape home confinement and smuggling him to Beirut via Turkey. They have been held without bail since then, in anticipation of a Japanese request for their extradition. It will ultimately be up to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to decide whether to send them to face Japanese justice.

He should not. We have already seen too much of what passes for justice in Japan when a high-profile case challenges both national interest and honor.

Ghosn, the former head of Japan’s Nissan and France’s Renault automakers, was responsible for forging the successful alliance between those companies and Japan’s Mitsubishi. A holder of Brazilian, French and Lebanese passports, Ghosn was arrested on financial misconduct charges in late 2018 after being summoned to Japan on the pretext of an urgent business meeting. He was then rearrested three more times. Each arrest entitled authorities to hold and interrogate Ghosn without a lawyer present for 23 days, up to 12 hours per day. During these grueling interrogations, they sought but failed to gain his confession. When Ghosn was finally released on bail, it was to a strict home confinement that prohibited him from seeing or speaking to his wife except in the presence of his lawyers, with some topics off-limits even then.

Without passing judgment on the merits, or lack thereof, of the case against Ghosn, the proceeding has smacked of prosecutorial interference in a boardroom business dispute from the beginning. Ghosn’s Japanese underlings had reason to fear that he wanted to pursue a formal merger with Renault. The French automaker held a much larger stake in Nissan – 43% – than the Japanese automaker’s corresponding 15% stake in Renault.

Enter the Taylors. Although nothing has been proved in court against them either, there seems to be little reason to doubt the Japanese claims that they were the key figures in an elaborate plot that involved Ghosn climbing into a musical equipment case and being loaded onto a private jet for a flight to Istanbul and then transferring to another plane for the second leg of his escape to Beirut. Lebanon, unlike the United States, does not have an extradition treaty with Japan.

Michael Taylor, 59, has a colorful history beyond his service in the U.S. Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets. Among other exploits, in 2009 he reportedly helped rescue a New York Times reporter, David Rohde, from captivity in Pakistan’s tribal areas after he was kidnapped by the Taliban. Taylor also served 19 months in prison after pleading guilty to a federal bribery charge.

Furious and deeply embarrassed by Ghosn’s escape, Japanese authorities issued arrest warrants for Ghosn’s wife Carole, whom the Japanese accused of perjury, and the Taylors. They also issued a warrant for a third man allegedly involved in Ghosn’s escape, George-Antoine Zayek. Zayek, like the Taylors and Carole Ghosn, is a U.S. citizen. Carole Ghosn has been with her husband in Beirut; Zayek apparently remains free, his whereabouts not publicly reported.

The Japanese are not exactly famous for being helpful when someone asks them to extradite their nationals to foreign jurisdictions, although they have been cooperative in some U.S. cases involving antitrust allegations. Pompeo and the State Department would have ample justification for declining to send American citizens back to Japan to serve as proxy defendants for Carlos Ghosn, a non-American who is the real target of Japan’s ire. But the Justice Department may have its own reasons for wanting America to look amenable on extradition matters.

Justice officials are eager to win the extradition from Canada of Chinese citizen Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co. and daughter of that company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei. Meng is under house arrest – a much less strict house arrest than Carlos Ghosn faced in Japan – in Vancouver, British Columbia. A judge in that province recently found that there is sufficient legal basis to consider the American extradition request. Chinese authorities have accused the Canadians of kowtowing to a politically motivated American prosecution by holding Meng.

Beyond the original charges alleging bank fraud for helping Iran evade American sanctions, U.S. prosecutors have indicted Meng for Huawei’s alleged theft of American trade secrets. In the context of the U.S.-China trade war, in which Huawei is a central player, the Taylors look like American pawns. The Justice Department may be prepared to sacrifice them to capture Huawei’s corporate queen, if they can convince the State Department to cooperate.

That would be unfortunate. In fact, it would give this example of American justice the hue that Japan’s judicial system took on in the Ghosn case. It will not be a good look.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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