Corruption and Concentration

September 13th, 2012 by Phil Mattera

The United States has by far the fattest military budget in the world, but soon the biggest company providing much of that weaponry could be European. Britain’s BAE Systems and Airbus parent EADS have announced plans to join forces, creating the world’s largest aerospace and military contracting corporation.

Business analysts are focusing on the challenge such a merger would pose to the companies’ U.S. rivals Boeing and Lockheed Martin, while little mention is being made of the fact that the deal would bring together two of the most ethically challenged large corporations in the world today.

For most of the past decade, BAE has been confronted with allegations that the company engaged in widespread bribery in its dealings with foreign governments. The charges began to receive significant attention in June 2003, when The Guardian reported that the U.S. government had privately accused BAE of offering bribes to officials in the Czech Republic. The Guardian went on to report that BAE was facing bribery allegations in three additional countries: India, South Africa and Qatar. Among the charges was that BAE had paid millions of pounds in secret commissions to obtain a huge deal, backed by the British government, to sell Hawk jets to South Africa. There were subsequent allegations that the company had formed a £20 million slush fund (later said to be £60 million) for paying bribes to officials in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.

Despite denials by the company, Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) launched a criminal investigation of the bribery charges, focusing on the allegations regarding Saudi Arabia. BAE and the Saudi embassy reportedly lobbied intensively to have the probe terminated, and in December 2006 their effort paid off. The British government called a halt to the case because of national security concerns. (In April 2008 Britain’s High Court ruled that the termination of the investigation was unlawful, but in July 2008 the House of Lords overruled the court.) The SFO did, however, continue to investigate BAE’s questionable behavior in six other countries. The company was also being investigated by Swiss officials for possible money laundering violations.

Unable to escape these allegations, BAE announced in June 2007 that it would commission its own purportedly independent examination of the issues led by Lord Woolf, former lord chief justice of England and Wales. The Woolf Committee’s 150-page report, released in May 2008, stated that BAE’s top executives “acknowledged that the Company did not in the past pay sufficient attention to ethical standards and avoid activities that had the potential to give rise to reputational damage.” However, the report seems to have bowed to the wishes of the company that the focus be placed on the future rather than the past. The report provided what it called “a route map for the Company to establish a global reputation for ethical business conduct.” Among its 23 recommendations is that BAE “continue to forbid facilitation payments as a matter of global policy.” Given the less than draconian nature of the recommendations, it is no surprise that BAE agreed to adopt all of them.

A new front in BAE’s problems with questionable payments opened in late July 2008, when the Financial Times reported that it had seen documents suggesting that the company had paid at least £20 million to a company linked to a Zimbabwean arms trade close to controversial President Robert Mugabe.

In February 2010 BAE reached settlements with the U.S. Justice Department and the U.K. Serious Fraud Office concerning the longstanding bribery charges. The company agreed to pay $400 million in the U.S. and the equivalent of about $47 million in Britain to resolve the cases.

Confidential U.S. government cables given leaked to the press by Wikileaks in 2011 indicated that BAE had paid more than £70 million in bribes to Saudi officials to support its help win a contract for fighter jets.

EADS has been embroiled in its own corruption controversies. In mid-2006 a scandal emerged regarding EADS co-chief executive Noel Forgeard. French and German market regulators announced that they were looking into the timing of substantial sales of EADS stock by Forgeard and members of his family that occurred just before the company announced delays in the production of the Airbus A380 superjumbo jet. Forgeard initially claiming the timing was coincidental, but within a few weeks he was forced to resign, as was the head of Airbus, Gustav Humbert.

That did not put an end to the insider trading investigation. In December 2006 French police searched the Paris headquarters of EADS and that of its main French shareholder, the Lagardère conglomerate. In April 2008 a formal complaint was filed against EADS as well as more than a dozen current and former executives. The following month preliminary charges were brought against Forgeard and then against former deputy chief executive Jean-Paul Gut. In December 2009, however, French authorities concluded there was insufficient evidence against the executives.

Prior to the insider trading affair, EADS and/or Airbus had been named in numerous scandals around the world involving alleged bribery. A 2003 article in The Economist described a pattern of foreign bribes paid by Airbus throughout its history, noting that the French government tolerated such payments until 2000.

One of the most significant controversies occurred in Canada, where former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was investigated over charges that he took bribes from German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber to induce Air Canada (then government controlled) to purchase $1.2 billion worth of Airbus planes in 1988. Mulroney denied the allegation vehemently and sued his own government, winning an apology and a cash settlement. The allegations were kept alive when Schreiber brought a civil suit against Mulroney, but Schreiber ended up making contradictory statements about the matter.

In December 2007 the government of India cancelled a $600 million order for military helicopters from Eurocopter after allegations that there had been corruption in the bidding process.

Just last month, it was reported that Britain’s SFO has launched a criminal probe of claims that a unit of EADS bribed officials in Saudi Arabia to win a $3 billion communications contract. The company asked PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct a parallel investigation.

Given the records of these two corporations, the regulators who will be deciding whether to approve the merger should also consider what conditions could be imposed on the combined company to get it to put an end to its legacy of corruption.

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