While investigators in India are following up on the money trial in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter scandal, the leads as to how a British corporate entity could so easily appoints agents and sanction millions of pounds to bribe Indian officials may lie in the UK.
Aside of smacking of lax corporate governance, the AgustaWestland affair shows the close relationship between the defence industry and UK government officials, who often use their capacity to influence local and international defence procurement.
The fact that the UK government has not investigated either AgustaWestland or the individuals accused of bribery and falsifying invoices in helicopter sales to India, Algeria and South Korea indicates the level of influence certain individuals exercise on successive UK governments.
A case to point is former UK Defence Secretary and AugstaWestland International Director Geoff Hoon. Appointed in 2011 soon after the scandal broke out, Hoon may be the man who knows more than others about happenings in the Anglo-Italian helicopter manufacturer. He was in government office from 1999- 2005, which was the time around which the Indian Air Force requirement for VVIP helicopters was floated and much of the evaluation happened.
Hoon was hired by AgustaWestland, majority held by Italian Finmeccanica (now Leonardo) despite being trapped in a cash-for-influence sting operation by a UK TV channel. He later became the face of the company in international trade shows speaking for the quality and performance of the helicopters while defending its murky ways to scoop up contracts.
In a February 2013 video interview with Defenseworld.net at the Aero India show in Bangalore, Hoon stated that the allegations of bribery in the VVIP helicopter scandal “were just that, allegations.” He claimed that everything had been checked out and that there was no truth in it (that bribes had been paid to secure the contract). This just a fortnight after Finmeccanica chief Giuseppe Orsi, was arrested by Italian police for alleged payoffs. Before Orsi became Finmeccanica head he was the chief of AgustaWestland and was succeeded by Bruno Spagnolini, who is a co-accused in the case.
Hoon appeared as a witness before the Italian court where he answered questions concerning the procurement process in India and denied charges of bribery.
Other that the Indian scandal, AgustaWestland was caught in a bribery involving helicopter sales to Algeria. Italian tax police had issued a statement in April 2015 about raids at several places in Italy concerned the alleged creation of slush funds and fake invoices by former AgustaWestland managers to help it win a contract to supply helicopters to the Algerian government in 2009-2011. This was the time when the Orsi- Spagnolini duo controlled Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland.
Hoon, in his capacity as Managing Director, International had given a glowing speech about the AW159 Lynx Wildcat helicopters in September 2015. Soon after that the South Korean government launched an investigation into the sale of 12 AW159 Lynx Wildcat choppers ordered for US$1.19 billion.
Hoon also wrote to the Indian MoD in 2013 that it had no right to pull out of the contract to supply 12 AW101 VVIP helicopter and to withhold payments. Soon after Orsi’s arrest, India’s then Minister of Defence, AK Antony had ordered a criminal probe and ordered a halt to further payments to AgustaWestland.
It must be stated at this point that there no evidence to indicate that Hoon was anywhere involved in the chopper sales to India, Algeria and South Korea. However, his spirited defence of a company against which the Italian court has established charges of bribery, even if the former two executives have been blamed and not the company, shows a surprisingly high level of conviction.
It is also surprising that the UK government has not accepted an Indian request to investigate the AgustaWestland money trial in the UK. It is also surprising that it has not thought it fit to probe the company and a UK based middleman, Christian Michel linked to the bribery scandal in India.
India’s then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose the occasion of an Indo-UK bilateral in February 2013 to bring up the AgustaWestland bribery issue. He said reading out a statement during a joint press conference "I also conveyed to Prime Minister Cameron our very serious concerns regarding allegations about unethical means used in securing the 2010 contract for Agusta Westland helicopters. I told him that we have sought an explanation from the company by February 22 to examine if the contractual provisions on unethical practices and the Integrity Pact have been violated. I have sought full assistance from the UK in this case. Prime Minister Cameron has assured me of the cooperation of his Government in the investigations."
On his part, Cameron said, "In terms of AgustaWestland...we will respond to any requests for information. I am glad the Italian authorities are looking into this issue in detail as Finmeccanica is an Italian company, a parent company of AgustaWestland”.
"Let me make it absolutely clear that in Britain, we have introduced an anti-bribery legislation that is probably the strongest anywhere in the world and will root out any problem of bribery or corruption whenever and wherever they appear," Cameron said.
However, even three years after Cameroon’s strongly worded statement, there has been no action on the ground in the UK regarding helping the Indians or even conducting an independent probe considering that AgustaWestland is a UK company and its main manufacturing facilities are in the UK.