April 20, 2019

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Carlos Ghosn May Have Spent Company Funds on Versailles Party, Renault Says

Carlos Ghosn May Have Spent Company Funds on Versailles Party, Renault Says
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PARIS — The French carmaker Renault on Thursday suggested publicly for the first time that Carlos Ghosn, its embattled former chairman and chief executive, may have misused company money to finance a lavish Marie Antoinette-themed party at Versailles to celebrate his second marriage and his new wife’s 50th birthday.

Renault said in a statement that it had notified the French judicial authorities that Mr. Ghosn, the longtime leader of a car-making alliance that also includes Nissan and Mitsubishi, had personally benefited from “an exchange worth 50,000 euros,” or about $57,000, in connection with the 2016 party.

France’s justice ministry did not immediately comment on whether it would pursue an investigation into the matter. The disclosure nonetheless threatened to increase the legal jeopardy swirling around Mr. Ghosn, who is in a Tokyo jail on charges that he underreported his income as Nissan chairman. Renault had previously said that an internal review raised no questions of wrongdoing on his part.

The funds at issue are connected to a €2.3 million donation Renault made to Versailles under a 2016 sponsorship deal. Versailles officials said in a statement Thursday that the sponsorship was meant to finance renovations at the extravagant estate, which was once home to French kings and is now among the country’s top tourist attractions.

In exchange, the carmaker was entitled to use the property for an equivalent rental value of up to 25 percent of the contribution. Any Versailles properties Renault used under the deal were to be solely for company activities like team building, not for personal events, according a person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. The donation came from a budget controlled by the office of Mr. Ghosn in his role as Renault’s chairman and chief executive, the person said.

The Versailles statement said Renault had asked to rent space in the Grand Trianon, a mansion on the palace grounds, and an adjacent gallery for a dinner, on Oct. 8, 2016 — the day of Mr. Ghosn’s party. The rental was valued at €50,000, the statement said.

The French news outlet Le Figaro reported Thursday that an invoice from an event company that organized the party listed the rental as being “offered by Versailles,” an indication that it had been a personal gift to Mr. Ghosn.

Even with no money changing hands, staging a personal party at Versailles under the sponsorship deal could be considered an abuse of corporate assets, a criminal offense in France that carries penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of €375,000, or about $425,000.

The black-tie event with 120 guests included actresses in period clothing and powdered wigs welcoming Mr. Ghosn and his second wife, Carole. The reception hall was tended by white-suited waiters and featured tiered golden dishes filled with macarons, and a towering, pyramid-shaped wedding cake made of choux pastry.

“When you invite people to a party, they say maybe,” Mr. Ghosn told Town & Country magazine, which splashed paparazzi photos of the event across its pages. “When you invite them to Versailles, they will come.”

Photos of the party have surfaced recently on social media, circulating widely as symbols of excess amid the so-called Yellow Vest protests against income inequality.

Renault began to examine Mr. Ghosn’s financial activities in France after he was arrested on his private jet at Tokyo’s international airport in November. He has been in jail there since.

Renault and Nissan have also been conducting a joint inquiry into a Dutch corporate entity that Mr. Ghosn led, Renault-Nissan BV, which the Japanese authorities have said he used to finance extra benefits for himself, including acquiring several homes with Nissan money.

The inquiry, which is being led by Mazars, an auditing firm based in Paris, is expected to encompass executive compensation, payments to consultants and general expenses, according to two people familiar with the situation.

For weeks, Renault stood by Mr. Ghosn. As it became apparent he could not be released on bail before a trial in Japan, he resigned, paving the way for the French automaker to appoint a new chairman and chief executive.

Mr. Ghosn insists that he is innocent of all charges. He said in recent interviews with Japanese and French newspapers that he was the victim of “plot and treason” by other Nissan leaders who wanted to thwart his plans to bring the alliance partners together under a single holding company.



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