Airbus pays record Sh400 billion fine over bribery

A flight attendant walks along an aisle in the 'World Traveller' section of the new Airbus A380. [Courtesy]
Airbus bribed public officials and hid the payments as part of a pattern of global graft, prosecutors said on Friday as the European plane maker agreed a record Sh400 billion ($4 billion) settlement with France, Britain and the US.

The disclosures, made public after a nearly four-year investigation spanning sales to more than a dozen overseas markets, came as courts on both sides of the Atlantic formally approved settlements that lift a legal cloud that has hung over Europe’s largest aerospace group for years.

“It was a pervasive and pernicious bribery scheme in various divisions of Airbus SE that went on for a number of years,” US District Judge Thomas Hogan said.

The deal, effectively a corporate plea bargain, means Airbus has avoided criminal prosecution that would have risked it being barred from public contracts in the US and European Union - a massive blow for a major defense and space supplier.

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Prosecutors said individuals could still face criminal charges, however.

Airbus, whose shares closed down one per cent, has been investigated by French and British authorities for alleged corruption over jet sales dating back more than a decade.

Historic practices

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It has also faced US inquiries over suspected violations of US export controls.

“In reaching this agreement today, we are helping Airbus to turn the page definitively” on corrupt past practices, French prosecutor Jean-Francois Bohnert said. France’s financial prosecutor said the company had also agreed to three years “light compliance monitoring” by the country’s anti-corruption agency. The US Department of Justice said the deal was the largest ever foreign bribery settlement.

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In a packed hearing at London’s Royal Courts of Justice, an Airbus lawyer said the settlements “draw a clear line under the investigation and under the grave historic practices”. Outlining detailed findings, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) said Airbus had hired the wife of a Sri Lankan Airlines executive as its intermediary and misled Britain’s UKEF export credit agency over her name and gender, while paying Sh200 million ($2 million) to her company. The airline could not be reached for comment.

On defense deals, Airbus hired and disguised payments to a close relative of a government official in Ghana with no aerospace experience in connection with a sale of military transport planes, the SFO said. Ghana’s government could not immediately be reached.

Court filings in Britain and the US outlined efforts to keep relationships and payments secret.   

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