Former Olympus Corp CEO Michael Woodford was set on Thursday to meet Tokyo police who are investigating an accounting scandal at the company, a day before attending a board meeting for a showdown with the directors who fired him.
Shares in the 92-year-old camera and endoscope maker, which lost more than 80 percent of their value at one point after the scandal broke, jumped at the start of trade on Thursday on expectations it would escape delisting despite the accounting scam and swirling speculation of organized crime involvement.
Olympus, which at first denied any wrongdoing, admitted this month it had used M&A payments to help hide losses on securities investments for two decades, blaming former president and chairman Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, former vice-president Hisashi Mori and internal auditor Hideo Yamada for the cover-up.
But where the money trail leads remains a mystery, fanning speculation of possible links between yakuza gangsters and the murky payments by Olympus for its acquisitions.
Olympus fired Woodford on October 14, asserting he had failed to understand Japanese culture and adapt to the firm's management style.
The 51-year-old Briton, who said he was axed for questioning
the M&A deals, fled to England and has publicly campaigned for the firm to come clean. Big foreign shareholders have called for his return to run the company and Woodford has said he was willing.
Woodford says Tokyo police, who have mobilized an organized crime unit to join the investigation, have a big role in uncovering the truth. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Britain's Serious Fraud Office are also investigating.
The metropolitan police to me is the one that probably has the capability to investigate this in the right way, a relaxed Woodford told reporters on Wednesday after a low-key return to Tokyo for the first time since his October 14 sacking.
CLEAN SWEEP FOR MANAGEMENT?
Woodford, who is still a director of the disgraced firm, had refused to return to Japan due to safety concerns, but has said he is now confident Japanese police will provide protection.
Speculation of organized crime links has swirled around the scandal. The firm said on Monday a third-party panel it set up to investigate the matter had found no evidence that organized crime syndicates or yakuza gangsters were involved in the M&A payments.
The payments included a massive $687 million advisory fee paid mostly to an obscure Cayman Islands firm.
The panel is due to report its findings in early December.
Woodford was also expected to meet officials at the watchdog Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission (SESC) and Tokyo prosecutors, who together with police are investigating what has become one of Japan's biggest corporate scandals.
Woodford, who acknowledges he can be loud-mouthed and strong-headed, has called for a thorough investigation of the transactions and for a clean sweep of top management.
But echoing calls by major foreign shareholders, Woodford said Olympus shares should not be delisted, in part to help ensure full disclosure of information.
The Tokyo Stock Exchange has placed Olympus on a watch list as a prelude to possible delisting. If the firm fails to meet a December 14 deadline for filing its financial statements for the six months to September, it will be automatically delisted.
The bourse could delist the firm even if it meets the deadline, depending on the scale of past financial misstatements or if proof emerges that it knowingly dealt with yakuza gangsters. That would effectively cut it off from capital markets and put it under pressure to sell off core businesses.
Big stockholders and a major governance advocacy group have also called for it not to be delisted. Olympus has said it would meet the December 14 deadline for filing its statements.
Its shares have more than doubled from a low hit on November 11 but are still down 61.9 percent since October 14 when the scandal broke.
(Additional reporting by Mari Saito; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Robert Birsel)