Renault-Nissan payments to political advisers draw scrutiny

February 1, 2019

By Laurence Frost

PARIS (Reuters) – Renault-Nissan is examining fees paid to consultants and political advisers including a serving European lawmaker, following Chairman Carlos Ghosn’s arrest and ouster from the helm of the carmaking alliance, two sources told Reuters.

Past business relationships with French advisers and lobbyists are in focus as the carmakers embark on an independent audit of their Dutch-registered Renault-Nissan BV (RNBV) holding that Nissan had long demanded and Renault initially resisted.

The Japanese carmaker is concerned that use of shared RNBV funds lacked transparency and may not have served the company’s interests as much as those of Renault, or Ghosn himself, the sources said.

Strategic PR adviser Claudine Pons and security consultant Alain Bauer have already confirmed reports they were paid via the holding for their services after a scandal at Renault in 2011 that almost forced Ghosn out. The company was hoaxed into firing three innocent executives over false spying accusations.

The alliance also hired former justice minister Rachida Dati as a legal adviser soon after she left the government of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009 to stand for the European Parliament, according to the same two sources.

RNBV’s dealings with Dati were unknown to Nissan, which co-funds the holding, spokesman Travis Parman said, when approached for comment. “Nissan is not aware of any such payments. We can’t comment on specifics related to the joint audit,” he said.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Dati, who is the highest-profile recipient of an alliance contract to have come to light.

When contacted by Reuters, she referred questions to her lawyer, Olivier Pardo. Pardo said Dati had been hired by RNBV in October 2009, four months after leaving Sarkozy’s government, and retained until February 2013. He declined to comment on her remuneration.

“It was a retainer agreement that complied with the rules applying to lawyers,” Pardo said. “It was a very broad and wide-ranging assignment, and since she is bound by professional secrecy I can’t go into any more detail.”

The decision to end her RNBV contract was taken in October 2012, according to Pardo, five months after Francois Hollande succeeded her former mentor as French president.

Spending on advisers appeared in RNBV accounts as a single line for consultants’ fees, which exceeded 20 million euros in 2015 but included no further details, sources have said.

Renault declined to comment on the RNBV audit.

Ghosn, who was forced to resign as Renault chairman and CEO last week, has been charged with failing to disclose more than $80 million in additional Nissan compensation for 2010-18 that he had arranged to be paid later.

Senior director Greg Kelly and the Japanese carmaker itself have also been indicted.

Both men deny that the deferred pay deals were illegal or required disclosure. Ghosn has denied a separate breach of trust charge over personal investment losses he temporarily transferred to Nissan in 2008.

The scandal has strained Nissan’s 20-year-old partnership with 43.4 percent-owner Renault.

Repairing the relationship is the biggest challenge facing Jean-Dominique Senard, who took over as Renault chairman last week, as Ghosn’s deputy Thierry Bollore was promoted to chief executive.

Nissan began pushing for an investigation into RNBV within hours of Ghosn’s arrest, and formally proposed a joint audit on Dec. 19.

But its calls were rebuffed by Renault under Bollore’s leadership as interim CEO, several sources have told Reuters.

Nissan stepped up pressure for a financial audit to be conducted independently of lawyers reporting to Mouna Sepehri, a senior executive close to Ghosn, following a Reuters report on Jan. 10 about her undisclosed pay, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

Renault’s board agreed to the audit the following week.

Further management changes are now likely at Renault “within a month or so”, a source close to Chairman Senard told Reuters.

Mazars, the Paris-based audit firm selected last week to comb through RNBV’s finances stretching back to its creation in 2002, is expected to complete its work by the end of February.

($1 = 0.8736 euros)

(Reporting by Laurence Frost; Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Gilles Guillaume; Editing by Mike Collett-White)