Airbus fined £3bn over ‘endemic’ corruption

French aerospace company Airbus is to pay over €3.5bn (£2.96bn) in fines globally to settle corruption charges, including almost €1bn to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) as part of a record-breaking deferred prosecution agreement (DPA)

As well as the SFO’s sanction of €983.97m (£833m), the company is also to pay €2.08bn to the French regulators and €525m to the US authorities, who took part in a joint investigation.

Details of the penalties were given in a public hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice, where the judge said the SFO’s financial sanction is greater than the total of all the previous sums paid pursuant to previous DPAs and more than double the total of fines paid in respect of all criminal conduct in England and Wales in 2018.

The UK regulator began investigating the company over allegations that it had used external consultants to bribe customers to buy its civilian and military aircrafts about four years ago. The indictment, which has been suspended for the term of the DPA, covers five counts of failure to prevent bribery involving Airbus’ commercial and defence & space divisions across five jurisdictions between 2011 and 2015. These are Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Ghana.

The French authorities’ investigation related to bribery and corruption offences in China, Colombia, Nepal, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia (Arabsat), Taiwan and Russia. The US Department of Justice investigation related to bribery and corruption offences in China and violations of the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) concerning a number of jurisdictions.

In her judgment, Dame Victoria Sharp said: ‘The seriousness of the criminality in this case hardly needs to be spelled out. As is acknowledged on all sides, it was grave.

‘The conduct took place over many years. It is no exaggeration to describe the investigation it gave rise to as worldwide, extending into every continent in which Airbus operates.

‘The number of countries subject to intense criminal investigation by the various agencies, and the scale and scope of the wrongdoing disclosed in the statement of acts demonstrate that bribery was to the extent indicated, endemic in two core business areas within Airbus.’

Breaches

The judge said that Airbus did have bribery prevention policies and procedures in place at the material time. However, prior to September 2014, those policies and procedures were easily bypassed or breached and there existed a corporate culture which permitted bribery by Airbus business partners and/or employees to be committed throughout the world.

Sharp said: ‘In this case, on the Airbus side, the wrongdoing involved a number of very senior, senior and other employees, including employees with compliance responsibilities.

‘The conduct by some included the creation of false invoices, false payment and other compliance material and the deliberate circumvention of both Airbus’ internal compliance procedures and external compliance procedures.’

The judge ruled that the total sum in penalties reflected the gravity of the conduct, the full cooperation of Airbus in the investigation, and the programme of corporate reform and compliance put in place by new leadership at the top of the company.

She considered the option to debar the company from tendering for UK public sector contracts, but said this was rejected because of the likely effect on the company financially ‘and on its (innocent) employees, and the wider effects this will have on innocent third parties’.  A Deloitte report, commissioned by Airbus, has estimated for example that if Airbus was debarred from public procurement for five years, the ongoing effects over fifteen years, could put many thousands of jobs at Airbus at risk, while the company estimated it could lose over €200bn of revenue globally.

Lisa Osofsky, Director of the SFO, said: ‘Airbus paid bribes through agents around the world to stack the decks in its favour and win contracts around the globe. Corruption like this undermines free trade and fair development and it is to Airbus’s credit that it has admitted its culpability, cleaned its house and come forward to put this conduct to bed.’

The SFO investigation remains active and the position in relation to individuals is being considered.

In a statement, Airbus said for legal reasons, it could not make any comment on the agreed statements of facts published by the investigating authorities. It added the company has taken significant steps to reform itself and to ensure that this conduct will not reoccur, including significantly enhancing its compliance system under the supervision of an independent compliance review panel.

Denis Ranque, chairman of the board of directors of Airbus, said: ‘The settlements we have reached today turn the page on unacceptable business practices from the past. The strengthening of our compliance programmes at Airbus is designed to ensure that such misconduct cannot happen again. ‘The agreements also reflect that the decision to voluntarily report and cooperate with the authorities was the right one.

‘The commitment from the board, and its ethics and compliance committee, to provide full support to the investigation and the implementation of globally recognised compliance standards have paved the way to today’s agreements.’

As part of the DPA, the company has agreed to full cooperation with the SFO and its law enforcement partners in any future investigations and prosecutions, and disclosure of any subsequent wrongdoing by the company or its employees, subject to applicable laws. If the company does not honour the conditions of the DPA the prosecution may resume. Airbus is also to pay the SFO’s investigative and legal costs of €6,989,401 within 30 days.

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