May 22, 2017 / 6:26 AM / 4 months ago

Airbus hires outside monitors amid fraud investigations

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Airbus Group is seen on the company's headquarters building in Toulouse, Southwestern France, April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) - Airbus (AIR.PA) has appointed an independent panel including two former ministers to examine its anti-corruption practices after Britain and France launched fraud and bribery investigations into the sale of jetliners.

Europe’s largest aerospace group said on Monday the three advisers, who include former German finance minister Theo Waigel and former French European affairs minister Noelle Lenoir, will report to Chief Executive Tom Enders and the board.

Airbus is in the midst of an upheaval after acknowledging discrepancies in past applications for British financial support to sell passenger jets.

The company’s self-disclosure of “misstatements and omissions” regarding the use of middlemen to help win contracts prompted Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to launch a bribery and fraud investigation last year.

France opened a similar investigation in March and authorities in the two countries have said they will cooperate in the inquiries, the most far-reaching to target the 47-year-old company’s civil activities.

Airbus is also facing legal wrangles in Austria. Vienna prosecutors last month announced a fraud investigation into Enders and other individuals in connection with a $2 billion fighter order in 2003.

The company has strongly rejected that move as a political gesture but has pledged to cooperate with all investigations.

The voluntary decision to bring in monitors appears designed to strengthen Airbus’s chances of winning a deferred prosecution deal in the civil investigations in Britain and France, where U.S.-style bargains are now possible under a recent French law.

In its 2016 annual report, Airbus said it may have to alter its business practices and could have a compliance monitor imposed on it due to the investigations.

It is also bracing for potentially significant fines and has warned it might get barred from some government contracts “for some period of time” following the investigations.

Airbus shares fell 0.4 percent on Monday.

AGENT FREEZE

A deferred prosecution agreement is a court-supervised deal to suspend prosecution for a time in return for reparations, which in the aerospace industry tend to involve big fines.

Following a four-year bribery investigation, UK engine maker Rolls-Royce (RR.L) agreed in January to submit to external monitoring and pay 671 million pounds ($872 million) as part of settlements in Brazil, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The third and possibly leading member of the Airbus panel, UK lawyer and House of Lords member David Gold, led a review of Rolls-Royce’s anti-corruption policies and was appointed by the United States to monitor Britain’s BAE Systems (BAES.L) following a $400 million bribery settlement in 2010.

The independent panel will take a “hard look” at Airbus’s systems and culture, Enders said in a statement. It will set its own remit, a spokesman said.

Airbus has meanwhile frozen the use of agents and overhauled its international marketing activities. But the freeze has caused some intermediaries to sue the company.

Sales agents are not illegal but many regulators view large payments to them as a potential avenue for corruption.

In a 2014 study, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said intermediaries were involved in three out of four bribery cases.

Editing by David Clarke

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