Michael Woodford, the former Olympus CEO, on Thursday kicks off his legal battle for wrongful dismissal on the grounds of discrimination and whistleblowing, in a UK case that will throw the spotlight back on one of Japan’s worst corporate scandals.
An Olympus veteran, Woodford was fired after questioning around $1.7 billion of dubious deals that top executives later admitted were fraudulent. He is seeking a payout that could reach tens of millions of pounds.
Thursday’s proceedings at a tribunal in east London will be closed to reporters, though a full hearing is expected to be scheduled in the next few months — unless Woodford and the Japanese endoscope and camera maker reach a settlement first.
“From the information that is available to the public, he appears to have a very strong case,” said Jordan Thomas, partner and chairman of U.S. securities litigation firm Labaton Sucharow’s Whistleblower Representation Practice.
He noted senior executives who report misconduct the world over often face retaliation from their employers.
Woodford, who has hired London law firm Simmons & Simmons, is expected to sue for up to 10 years’ lost salary after launching a one-man campaign to alert authorities in Japan, the U.S. and Britain to the scandal, and has urged reporters to investigate where the money went since being fired last October.
In a 30-year career, Woodford worked his way up from UK salesman to company president, a role he had held for six months.
One-time chairman Tsuyoshi Kikukawa and former vice-president Hisashi Mori then handed him the CEO job last October after a dispute — in return for compliance.
But when he persisted in demanding answers about the deals and called for the resignations of Kikukawa and Mori, the Olympus board unanimously fired him two weeks into the new job.
Woodford fled Japan after being told his safety might be at risk.
Kikukawa and Mori were among seven men arrested by Japanese police and prosecutors last month after Olympus admitted it had hidden losses on securities investments for two decades.
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