Airbus is expected to escape criminal prosecution in one of the biggest corruption scandals of a global corporation. Regulatory authorities from France, Great Britain and the USA had sentenced the aircraft manufacturer to a record payment of 3.6 billion euros in 2020 and imposed a three-year probationary period. In the event of renewed corruption, fraud or other misconduct, however, there was a risk of criminal proceedings with unforeseeable consequences.
According to WELT research, the probation process with the postponed prosecution has now been discontinued, at least by Great Britain. When asked, Airbus speaks of a “very important milestone”.
It is still awaiting the formal decision of the French authorities (Parquet National Financier - PNF) and the US Department of Justice that Airbus has met the conditions and the prosecution will be terminated in accordance with the procedural requirements in France and the US.
Industry insiders expect this. It would be a sensation if Paris and Washington did not also refrain from criminal prosecution, they say. However, there could possibly be further requirements for correct behavior.
In the standstill agreement agreed between Airbus, the law enforcement authorities and corruption investigators at the beginning of 2020, the indictment was formally postponed against conditions. Experts speak of a “Deferred Prosecution Agreement – DPA”. It's a mix of probation and comparison. At Airbus, the so-called probation period with suspended prosecution lasted until January 31, 2023.
From a German point of view, the procedure is special. In Great Britain, France and the USA not only people but also companies can be charged and criminally convicted.
This is a mega risk for Airbus. The aircraft group could be excluded from markets. The group allegedly estimated the risk potential at 200 billion euros. This risk has now been averted, at least by the British authorities.
The charges are formally withdrawn and the company is considered not to have been convicted of a criminal offense. When asked by WELT at the British anti-corruption authority SFO (Serious Fraud Office), it formally states: "Cessation of the proceedings after an agreement on deferred prosecution has expired."
The corruption scandal had shaken Airbus to its foundations. Managers were replaced and a new corporate culture was promoted. As a condition of the standstill agreement, there was not only a change at the top of the group from the German Tom Enders to the French Guillaume Faury and the replacement of the CFO.
Above all, a network of middlemen was broken up and shut down, who mainly represented French state interests in civil and military business and arranged deals. Enders repeatedly emphasized that he helped uncover corruption. After a self-disclosure in 2016, the group came into the focus of the anti-corruption authorities.
Four years of intensive investigations followed with armies of lawyers. 30.5 million documents were screened. The British anti-corruption authority SFO spoke of fraud, bribery and corruption, especially in the civilian Airbus aviation division. Airbus paid millions through intermediaries and dark channels to win orders.
According to investigators, bribery or concealment was practiced on almost every continent. The methods were varied, such as paying millions to a soccer club in Asia as lubricant for aircraft orders. Millions of dollars flowed to managers or owners of airlines.
The record fine of 3.6 billion euros imposed by the anti-corruption authorities in London, Paris and Washington at the end of January 2020 consisted of several components. Profit was skimmed off and a penalty imposed. The largest share flowed to France with 2.1 billion euros, followed by Great Britain with almost 984 million euros and the USA with almost 526 million euros. Airbus still included the penalty payment in the 2019 balance sheet and thus slipped into the red.
For the corruption investigators, the Airbus case was special due to the first transatlantic cooperation. At the end of the process, the SFO praised the "effective partnerships" with the law enforcement/corruption authorities in the USA and France.
The Airbus businesses were examined primarily in the United Arab Emirates, China, South Korea, Nepal, India, Taiwan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Japan, Turkey, Mexico, Thailand, Brazil and Kuwait. British investigators focused on South Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Taiwan, Ghana, Colombia and Mexico.
As a result of the corruption scandal, Airbus now has extensive training courses for proper business transactions (compliance), the involvement of the legal department in a wide range of processes and special committees. Some of the regulations are very excessive, according to Airbus circles.
The group is signaling to the authorities that it will continue to cooperate. "We're proud of what we've achieved, but we're not complacent about the future," it said in a statement. The group now wants to present itself as super correct. Literally, it says: "We remain committed to adhering to the highest ethical and compliance standards in all of our operations worldwide and to make this a competitive advantage over time."
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