ECONOMY

Escape Artists Accused of Freeing Carlos Ghosn Can’t Evade Reckoning in Japan

Fifteen months after security contractor Michael Taylor smuggled the former Nissan Motor Co. chairman Carlos Ghosn out of Japan, the two men have switched places.

On Monday, the Japanese authorities took custody of Taylor and his son Peter in Massachusetts, after the U.S. authorized their extradition on charges they aided Ghosn in a corporate escape plot worthy of Hollywood. The Taylors face a possible three-year sentence in Japanese prison. Ghosn is a free man in Lebanon.

Prosecutors in the U.S. and Japan have cast the Taylors as master escape artists. And in the nine months since they were arrested in May, the father-son duo did everything they could to avoid facing charges in Japan. They fought the extradition in court and hired lawyers and lobbyists to wage the kind of influence campaign that allowed so many well-connected people to avoid legal trouble in the Trump era. But in the end, the Taylors could find no way out.

What follows is an account of the fallout from the Ghosn escape, an audacious operation that allowed the Nissan chief to evade the authorities but also resulted in the Taylors’ capture. It’s based on emails, texts and court documents, as well as interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with the case, most of whom asked not to be identified discussing private conversations.

In interviews from jail in January and February, the 60-year old Michael Taylor, a former Green Beret, said he felt betrayed by the government he once served. “Clearly, Americans don’t really care about their people,’’ he said. “And their elected officials don’t care about military veterans.”

The Justice Department declined to comment. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The escape took place on Dec. 29, 2019, while Ghosn was free on bail and facing charges of financial misconduct. A longtime security consultant known for extricating people from tricky situations, Michael Taylor had been planning the operation for months. The evening of the escape, he loaded Ghosn into a box for audio equipment, and put it on a chartered jet that whisked the auto executive to Turkey, before another plane took him to Beirut.

Michael Taylor also flew to Lebanon, where he had met his wife when he was in the Army Special Forces. As the escape made international headlines, he kept in touch with friends in the U.S., planning golf outings and possible business ventures, including a plan to sell face masks to the Brazilian government. His lawyers, he later said, had assured him that assisting a bail-jumper was not a crime in Japan.

On Jan. 30, 2020, Japan issued arrest warrants for Michael Taylor and his 26-year-old son, Peter, who the authorities alleged had met with Ghosn in Tokyo before the escape. Rather than go into hiding, Michael Taylor decided to return to the U.S., which, unlike Lebanon, has an extradition treaty with Japan. The decision baffled some of his friends. 

“He was enormously stupid,” said Jack Holly, a former Pentagon logistics officer who worked with Taylor in Iraq in the early 2000s. “He should’ve stayed. He has a nice house in Beirut.”

Taylor has long maintained that he had nothing to hide and no desire to evade the American authorities. He and Peter returned to the Boston suburbs, where the Taylors live in an orange house surrounded by trees. Early one morning in May, federal agents showed up at the door.

It wasn’t Michael Taylor’s first arrest. He was indicted in 2012 for his role in a Defense Department bid-rigging scandal and served prison time after pleading guilty to wire fraud. After his arrest in the Ghosn case, Taylor pursued a two-pronged defense strategy — fighting extradition in court and pleading his case to key people in government. He hired the law firm K&L Gates, which dispatched seven lobbyists to speak with members of Congress as well as officials at the White House and State Department, at a cost of more than $300,000, records show.

The effort seemed to hold early promise. Aides for Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi who has criticized Japan’s treatment of another former Nissan executive, contacted the Taylors’ legal team and offered to help, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Wicker declined to comment on his role in the case.

But the Taylors had less luck in court. In September, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donald Cabell authorized the extradition, ruling that it wasn’t the role of an American court to parse the nuances of Japan’s century-old penal code.

The decision enraged Michael Taylor. “Go to Japan and figure it out — that’s essentially what they’re saying,” he said. “Is that the way America is now?”

In extraditions, a judicial ruling is only a preliminary step. The Secretary of State makes the final call. After Cabell issued his decision, the Taylors intensified their lobbying campaign in Washington. The legal team sent a 26-page letter to the State Department, emphasizing that Michael Taylor was a veteran and that a lung operation had left him vulnerable to Covid-19.

The letter was signed by two lawyers with ties to then-president Donald Trump: Abbe Lowell, who has represented Jared Kushner; and Ty Cobb, who served as Trump’s attorney in the early stages of the Mueller investigation.

At the end of October, however, the State Department authorized the extradition. Cobb and Lowell didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Around that time, Taylor was presented with another possible solution. Raymond Mansolillo, a criminal defense lawyer he’d known since the 1990s, met with him at the jail outside Boston and told him he could pull strings in Washington to stop the extradition, according to two people familiar with the conversation. Mansolillo said he would work with his longtime friend Bernie Kerik, a close ally of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and a recent recipient of a presidential pardon.

The asking price was $5 million, with $2 million paid up front, one of the people said. 

Taylor couldn’t afford to pay that much, and his legal team was suspicious of Mansolillo’s proposal. No money ever changed hands.

Mansolillo confirmed meeting with Taylor at the jail but declined to comment on their conversation and didn’t respond to questions about the size of the fee. “Nothing nefarious took place,” he said. Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner, said he discussed the case with Mansolillo but never spoke with Giuliani or anyone at the White House.

Meanwhile, the Taylors continued to battle in court. Not long after the State Department authorized the extradition, a federal judge granted a stay, allowing them to make a new legal argument — that they would be tortured in Japan. Echoing claims Ghosn has made to justify his escape, the Taylors cited a United Nations report that concluded Japan’s interrogation and detention practices may “expose detainees to torture, ill treatment and coercion.”

The stay also gave the Taylors more time to press their case in Washington.

A few days after the November election, Michael Taylor was interviewed by Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, a longtime Trump booster.  “Only the president can turn this around,” Taylor said during the broadcast. Bartiromo told the Taylors’ representatives that she would bring the case up with Trump before he left office, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

The Taylors also tried to reach the president through more conventional means. At a White House event in December, a K&L Gates lobbyist briefly discussed the Taylors with the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, according to two people briefed on the encounter. And that month, Cobb and Lowell sent a new letter to the State Department, arguing that the Taylors would be tortured in Japan.

None of those efforts bore fruit. Bartiromo didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment on whether she spoke with Trump. Representatives for Trump and K&L Gates declined to comment. A spokesman for Meadows didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

As the case unfolded in court, State Department officials refused to sit down with the Taylors’ legal team, citing a policy against meeting with lawyers on extradition cases.

“The department’s decision was made following careful consideration,” one official, Karen Johnson, wrote in an email to Cobb, Lowell and other Taylor lawyers. “The decision was final.”

On Jan. 28, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani rejected the torture argument, paving the way for extradition. While Japanese jails may be “deplorable,” Talwani wrote, the Taylors had failed to show they were “more likely than not” to be tortured. Both the appeals court in Massachusetts and the U.S. Supreme Court denied the Taylors’ last-minute pleas.

The Taylors had always faced an uphill battle. Michael Taylor never denied that he helped Ghosn flee, and even described how he executed the operation in an interview with Vanity Fair before he was arrested. And while he insisted his son had no role in the escape, the legal team did not raise that issue in court until after Cabell authorized the extradition.

It was also a long shot that the State Department would reject an extradition request from a close ally like Japan. The case unfolded as the U.S. was working to strengthen ties in Asia to present a united front against China. Refusing to hand over the Taylors would have been “kind of a slap” in the face for Japan, said Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Michael Taylor helped Ghosn flee partly because his own prison sentence in the bid-rigging case had made him sympathetic to the auto executive’s plight. He told Vanity Fair he was never paid for getting Ghosn out of Japan, and now he’s facing years in Japanese prison. “I have no feelings toward the guy about anything,” Taylor said in February. “I have no contact with him, no communications.” A spokeswoman for Ghosn did not respond to a request for comment.

In jail, Taylor obsessed over his case. He can reel off a list of extraditions the U.S. handled differently from his own, including the government’s refusal to send the wife of an American official back to the U.K. to face charges for a car crash that killed a teenager in 2019. Unlike Taylor, the driver, Anne Sacoolas, claimed diplomatic immunity.

Taylor said he’ll never return to the U.S. from Japan, even if he avoids conviction. “I’m ashamed to have served in the military,” he said. “I want no part of a country like this.” 

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