Airbus unit's seven-year UK corruption probe prompts call for action from OECD officials

7 October 2019 10:33am

4 October 2019, by Martin Coyle

The case of an Airbus unit embroiled in a UK corruption probe for seven years is to be raised by a global anti-bribery standards body pressing for it to be resolved, MLex has learned.

The UK’s Serious Fraud Office has been investigating GPT Special Project Management since 2012 after a former company executive blew the whistle on alleged bribery linked to a Saudi Arabian defense contract.

Ian Foxley alleged that the European aerospace giant's Riyadh-based subsidiary paid bribes to secure a deal worth 2 billion pounds ($2.4 billion) to upgrade the Saudi National Guard’s communications systems on behalf of the UK’s Ministry of Defence.

Now the Organization of Cooperation and Development's Working Group on Bribery will talk to UK government officials at a scheduled group meeting in Paris next week over the handling of the case and press them for a quick decision.

There are concerns that a decision is being delayed or charges could be blocked because of GPT's link to the UK government and Saudi Arabian state involvement. The UK could in theory cite national-security concerns and drop the case.

The SFO is thought to be ready to press charges in the case against the company or former employees but must wait for the government’s top lawyer to rubber stamp the move.

MLex understands that the agency passed the dossier last year to Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who has to give approval to bring charges because the alleged offenses predate the UK’s Bribery Act 2010. The case is being investigated under previous legislation, the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906.

In April, Cox said he was “aware” of the case and was receiving regular updates on it. “The investigation is ongoing and therefore the Attorney General cannot comment,” a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman told MLex. The SFO declined to comment.

Al-Yamamah again?

The OECD working group is concerned that the case could play out similarly to a debacle involving BAE Systems, which tarnished the UK’s reputation as a foreign bribery enforcer after a major corruption probe was closed down following government pressure.

In 2006, the UK government forced the SFO to end a corruption investigation into the British aerospace company over a deal with the Saudi Arabian government for several military jets, known as the Al-Yamamah deal.

It argued the probe should be dropped to protect the UK's national security interests, following complaints made by Riyadh. 

OCED officials are hoping to get the UK delegation to commit to setting a timeline for making a decision in the GPT case, MLex understands.

The case is complicated by Airbus’s decision in June to shutter the unit by the end this year and not seek any new business through it. The OECD working group is keen that if that decision makes it hard to prosecute the company then any individuals connected to it should be investigated thoroughly.

Measures

The key measures at the OECD working group's disposal are its ability to name and shame countries that it feels aren’t prosecuting foreign bribery strongly enough, and to send high-level delegations to countries not toeing the line.

These options remain open if the UK doesn’t act in the GPT case, it is understood, although this step is not thought to be imminent and would need near-unanimous approval by the 44 states that are members of the group.

The OECD strongly criticized the UK at the time of the BAE Systems case, and this was one of the factors behind its moves to introduce the Bribery Act 2010.