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Ousted Woodford launches Olympus lawsuit

Former Olympus CEO Michael Woodford speaks during a news conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo
Former Olympus CEO Michael Woodford speaks during a news conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo

By Kirstin Ridley

LONDON (Reuters) - Michael Woodford, the ousted Olympus chief executive who blew the whistle on one of Japan's most high-profile frauds, vowed he would hold his former employer to account as he kicked off his legal battle for wrongful dismissal in London on Thursday.

"I found wrongdoing, I raised that wrongdoing and for doing that I was dismissed ... in a way in which I'll never forget," he told a small throng of reporters gathered outside an employment tribunal building in east London.

"(I was) thrown out of my apartment and told to get the bus to the airport. We now know why ... I'm looking today to hold Olympus to account."

A 30-year Olympus <7733.T> veteran, Woodford was fired after questioning around $1.7 billion of dubious deals that top executives later admitted were fraudulent. To date, seven people have been arrested in Japan, including former chairman Tsuyoshi Kikukawa and former vice-president Hisashi Mori.

Thursday's proceedings were closed to reporters, but a five-day hearing is scheduled to begin on May 28 which will be open to the media and the public -- unless Woodford and the Japanese endoscope and camera maker reach a settlement first.

Woodford, the former president of Olympus, was appointed a rare British chief executive of a Japanese company last October after confronting Kikukawa and Mori over a series of odd-looking acquisitions and fees.

But after he persisted in asking questions about the deals, and called for the resignation of Kikukawa and Mori, he was unanimously fired by the board two weeks later at a board meeting during which, he says, he was not allowed to speak.

Olympus President Shuichi Takayama has said the company dismissed Woodford because of a clash of management styles and his "unilateral decision-making and bypassing of consultation."

Woodford, who worked his way up Olympus from UK salesman, spent much of his career in Britain and has a house in Southend in southern England, which he hopes is enough to be able to bring the case against Olympus in the UK.

Woodford, who fled Japan after being told by people he trusted that his safety might be at risk, launched a one-man campaign to alert authorities in Japan, the United States and Britain to the scandal, while urging reporters to investigate money trails.

But he failed in his campaign to be reinstated as CEO, blaming cosy ties between its disgraced management and big Japanese shareholders.

His four-year CEO contract ran until June 2015, although he could claim for up to ten years lost employment. Any payout could reach tens of millions of pounds.

"Do the right thing. Treat me fairly," Woodford told Olympus and key creditor and shareholder Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group (SMFG) <8316.T>. "But if you want to go through the legal process, so be it. I'm very happy for the courts and public opinion to judge my case."

Any attempt by Olympus to avoid further damage from the scandal by settling with Woodford is likely to be shortlived.

Woodford is penning a book in both English and Japanese about experiences he has likened to a thriller by U.S. author John Grisham.

(Reporting by Kirstin Ridley. Editing by Jane Merriman)

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