The Serious Fraud Office and French prosecutors are in close discussion over the terms of a £1 billion-plus settlement for Airbus over corruption allegations.
The deal, called a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), would be the largest ever in Europe, after a year-long investigation into irregular payments by Airbus to intermediaries.
The French and German-owned plane maker allegedly used highly-paid fixers around the world to sell A380 planes worth billions to China, Turkey, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and others. Sales to Kazakhstan, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia are being investigated separately.
A meeting between French and British prosecutors took place last month, according to a source close to the SFO, with a view to hammering out the terms of the DPA. A source said: “David Green, the director of the SFO, would love his parting shot to be a DPA with Airbus.”
Green (pictured), who quits as SFO director in April 2018, negotiated a £497 million DPA with Rolls-Royce in January, where the use of intermediaries was investigated. “The deals involving Airbus are much bigger,” said the source. “It goes back further and the allegations are more serious. This could top the billion-pound mark.”
The firm is Europe’s biggest plane maker and has sites near Bristol and in North Wales, where it makes wings and other components for Airbus planes. It also has a large military aviation arm. Co-operation at this level between British and French prosecutors is unprecedented, said the source.
The French end of the probe is being run by the national fraud investigator and prosecutor, the Parquet National Financier (PNF). The SFO probe was announced in August 2016, when it said that it was investigating allegations relating to “irregularities concerning third party consultants”, used in the civil aviation business.
Airbus has admitted “misstatements and omissions relating to information provided in respect of third party consultants in certain applications for export credit finance for Airbus customers”. Its 2016 annual report accepts that the “any disclosure action potentially arising as a result of the SFO and PNF investigation could have negative consequences for Airbus… The investigations could have a material impact on the financial statements.”
UK Export Finance struck the company off its list of eligible recipients of credit insurance and finance after Airbus informed it of the irregularities and it passed on the report to the SFO.
A former SFO officer alleges that UKEF missed warning signs. “The UKEF should have been picking up the noise. Huge amounts of money went through without proper checks.”
A UKEF spokesperson said: “While UKEF is not a law enforcement agency and has no statutory investigatory powers, we rigorously follow OECD standards and take all possible precautions to avoid supporting transactions that may be tainted by corruption.”
The SFO, PNF and Airbus did not comment.