Every weekday morning, Greg Kelly, the former Nissan executive accused of helping Carlos Ghosn hide his compensation from the Japanese authorities, makes his way to his lawyer’s office in Tokyo to chip away at a monumental task: reviewing close to one billion pages of documents.
His wife, Donna Lynn Kelly, whom everyone calls Dee, goes off to Japanese class.
That’s the life of the two Americans in Japan as they await Mr. Kelly’s trial, according to a person who knows Mr. Kelly and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personal matters. The timing of the trial, once set to begin in April, is now uncertain after Mr. Ghosn’s sudden flight to Lebanon two weeks ago. A pretrial hearing next Thursday may shed more light.
Mr. Kelly, whose passport was taken away when he was arrested in November 2018, is preparing to defend himself against criminal charges that, as Mr. Ghosn’s chief of staff and the man nominally in charge of Nissan’s internal auditing, he helped Mr. Ghosn conceal how much he was being paid. The prosecutors in Japan declined to comment on Mr. Kelly’s case.
Mr. Kelly says he is innocent and just wants to go home to Tennessee. At 63, he suffers from a spinal condition that has left him with weakness in his extremities and an uncertain gait that sometimes causes him to trip and fall. He has an infant grandson in Seattle he has never met.
On Jan. 8, he watched his former boss, appearing fit and pugnacious in Beirut, address a room packed with journalists. Over nearly three hours, Mr. Ghosn proclaimed his innocence in four languages. He mentioned Mr. Kelly twice.
“Greg Kelly, an honorable man, husband and father, who was brutally taken from his family,” Mr. Ghosn said. “My plight has captured headlines,” he said. “You cannot forget Greg’s ordeal.”
In Beirut, Mr. Ghosn has a pink mansion in an upscale part of town. The Kellys live in an apartment, small but clean, with a microwave but no stove. Ms. Kelly can visit family in the United States, but she spends most of her time with her husband in Tokyo, the person said. Her visa depends on her studying Japanese, so she spends several hours a day in class. If she doesn’t score high enough on the exams, she can be sent home.
While Mr. Ghosn used a corporate jet to visit homes in Brazil, Beirut, Paris and Tokyo before the 2018 arrests, Mr. Kelly led a more pedestrian life as a Nissan executive, according to two people who know him.
A lawyer, Mr. Kelly joined Nissan in 1988, enticed by a recruiter who described “an extremely interesting Japanese company in Tennessee. I think it would a good fit for you,” he recalled last year in an interview with the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju.
He and his wife raised a family — two sons — in Brentwood, Tenn., a Nashville suburb near Nissan’s North American headquarters, and Ms. Kelly worked as an accountant. While the children were young, the Kellys were members of the Church of the Good Shepherd, a local Episcopalian congregation, with Dee and their son Mike writing and directing Christmas pageants.
In 2008, their lives changed. Mr. Kelly’s job, as senior executive in Nissan’s human resources department, took him to Japan, and Ms. Kelly came with him. He became a senior vice president and then, in 2012, joined Nissan’s board — its first American board member — while working for Mr. Ghosn, the chairman, as the company’s top legal officer.
He was considered a close associate of the chairman, a reliable vote to help Mr. Ghosn carry out his plans for an alliance of Nissan and Renault, the French automaker Mr. Ghosn also headed. But Mr. Kelly has rejected that description, pointing out that he was not on the board’s top decision-making body, the executive committee. “Considering this, why was I called Ghosn’s right-hand man?” he told Bungei Shunju.
The Kellys enjoyed Japan — “Greg and I often discussed the possibility of living in Japan part-time in our retirement,” Ms. Kelly later said — but their lives remained rooted in the United States.
In 2008, they bought a vacation house in Sanibel Island, Fla., in a neighborhood crammed with a network of canals leading to the Gulf of Mexico, according to property documents. They joined a sailing club that organized potlucks at picnic huts on the beach and luncheons at local seafood restaurants.
“You’re dealing with an all-American guy, not extravagant, no racehorses, nothing,” said the second person who knows Mr. Kelly. “Very ordinary guy, and charming, very American in the positive sense of the word.”
Mr. Kelly retired to Tennessee in 2015 but kept his board seat. In November 2018, Mr. Kelly recalled in the interview with Bungei Shunju, a senior executive urged him to attend a board meeting in Japan. Mr. Kelly, facing spinal surgery within two weeks at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said he would prefer to attend via video conference. The official insisted that he come in person, that the company would send a plane to pick him up and that he would be home within three days, in time for Thanksgiving.
Minutes after landing in Tokyo, he was arrested. He spent the next 34 days in a cell at Tokyo Detention House, sleeping on a futon on the floor.
Before he was released on bail on Christmas Day in 2018, Ms. Kelly recorded a video and distributed it news organizations, begging for her husband to be freed or at least to be allowed to consult with a Japanese doctor she had identified as one of the country’s leading experts on Mr. Kelly’s condition. He would eventually undergo surgery in Tokyo for spinal stenosis, but it did not relieve his symptoms.
In September, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission accused Mr. Kelly, along with Mr. Ghosn and Nissan, of breaking American disclosure laws. Mr. Kelly agreed to pay $100,000 and submit to a five-year ban on serving as a senior executive of a public company to settle the charges without admitting or denying guilt.
Prosecutors have barred his lawyers from putting the voluminous documents in his case online and making them searchable, which means that only Mr. Kelly’s Japanese defense team, or others who come to their Tokyo offices, can see them.
Mr. Kelly has insisted on helping to review the mountain of documents prosecutors say they will use to make their case. He spends hours each day at his lawyer’s office.
“Greg has been wrongly accused as part of a power grab by several Nissan executives,” Ms. Kelly said in the video. “The truth of this will come out.”
In the 2019 magazine interview, Mr. Kelly was defiant about his and Mr. Ghosn’s innocence, contending that Hiroto Saikawa, who was then Nissan’s chief executive, approved the compensation plans that led to the arrests. “How come Ghosn and I were suddenly arrested without one instance of being asked to explain and no discussions or meeting on the subject,” he said.
But then Mr. Kelly added, “I am very proud to have worked for this amazing company, Nissan, for over 30 years. It has been an honor.”
Liz Alderman and Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.