ON Jan 31, the world woke up to a sensational report by Reuters that said Airbus paid RM204 milllion and offered RM225 million more to sponsor a sports team linked to two unnamed “key decision makers” at AirAsia and AirAsia X.
The following day, Al Jazeera reported that Airbus agreed to pay a “US$4 billion settlement with France, the United Kingdom and the United States”.
The settlement brought closure to a lengthy global corruption investigation.
A colleague had asked me whether the “settlement” by Airbus was similar to a “plea bargain”.
I said there may be a parallel between the two, but there is a fundamental difference.
In a plea bargain, there is already an “accused” in a criminal case pending prosecution, where the accused pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a more lenient sentence or an agreement to drop other charges.
But in the Airbus case, the settlement was made in order to avoid prosecution.
There is therefore no criminal record to be worried about.
In doing so Airbus removed a legal cloud hanging over it, thus freeing it to carry on its business in competition with its rival, Boeing.
The latter had suffered a dent in its image after two tragic crashes in 2018 and 2019, where 346 people perished.
The settlement also allows the company to avoid criminal prosecutions which, if they result in convictions, could destroy its future.
French prosecutor Jean-Francois Bohnert had said the agreement with the prosecution was helping Airbus “to turn the page”, so that it would be able to continue building “its economic future”.
The company, he added, had acknowledged acts of corruption during negotiations for the settlement.
In a statement last week, Airbus confirmed it had reached an agreement in principle with the French Parquet National Financier, the UK Serious Fraud Office and the US authorities.
The investigation into Airbus malpractices over the last decade revealed the existence of an “opaque system” of hundreds of “agents” or intermediaries who bribed officials in at least 16 countries, including Japan, Russia and China.
Surprisingly, initial investigation into “possible wrongdoing” was done by Airbus itself four years ago by its chief executive officer, Tom Enders.
Reportedly, he began an internal inquiry after discovering several irregularities during an audit of its “business practices”.
Suspecting that wrongdoing had indeed taken place, Enders then lodged a report with the authorities.
The move by the Airbus CEO shows exemplary leadership — an act of courage. Malaysian leaders can learn from this.
It is really too soon to say whether this affair would negatively impact local business entities.
Nonetheless, there is already blemish on Airbus’ otherwise clean record as a giant aerospace company.
The writer, a former federal counsel at the Attorney-General’s Chambers, is deputy chairman of the Kuala Lumpur Foundation to Criminalise War