TOKYO -- Inside Nissan he was known as the CEO whisperer: The chief of staff who would deliver the most delicate messages to Carlos Ghosn, and the man Ghosn would count on to enforce his directives.
Today, Greg Kelly is locked up in a small Tokyo jail cell with a toilet and wash basin, cut off from Ghosn and barely able to speak with his own lawyers. Kelly, the only American to serve on Nissan's board, was arrested on Nov. 19, along with Ghosn, both on suspicion of financial misconduct. Nissan has called Kelly a mastermind of a criminal plot to under-report his boss’s income.
Barely known outside Nissan circles, Kelly's decade-long role as Ghosn’s loyal gatekeeper and confidante now thrusts him to the heart of the investigation by Japanese authorities. That relationship may put him in the thorny position of holding Ghosn’s legal fate in his hands. Kelly, 62, could spend years in jail if it’s shown he was complicit in any wrongdoing.
“If their behavior was illegal, then the people who know about it have an obligation to tell the truth; it has nothing to do with loyalty,” said Maryann Keller, an independent auto analyst in Stamford, Connecticut. “That goes for Greg Kelly, too. If he was ordered to do illegal things by Carlos Ghosn, he would be a fool not to say that.”
A whistle-blowing tip from inside Nissan sparked the investigation, according to CEO Hiroto Saikawa. This may have come as a personal blow to Kelly, as he placed the people who are privy to the intricacies of Nissan executives’ compensation in their positions.
Aubrey Harwell, Kelly’s Nashville, Tennessee, lawyer, said his client “takes the position that what he did was legal and appropriate.” Kelly claims Japanese regulators had approved his practice of not including Ghosn’s deferred pay in securities reports, according to Kyodo News.
Ghosn has denied any wrongdoing, Japan’s national broadcaster NHK reported last week. Neither man has been formally charged yet. Ghosn also denies passing on personal trading losses to the carmaker, his lawyer Motonari Otsuru told Bloomberg.
This account of the relationship between Kelly and Ghosn is based on interviews with four people who worked with them closely, and who requested anonymity to protect themselves from possible reprisal.
Kelly joined Nissan in 1988 as an attorney in Smyrna, Tennessee, at what is now North America’s largest assembly plant. The following year, Kelly helped organize and win an anti-union campaign there against the United Auto Workers.