European planemaker Airbus is set to pay a record $4 billion fine to settle charges that it bribed public officials and hid the payments as part of a pattern of worldwide corruption. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the deal was the largest ever foreign bribery settlement. Airbus disclosed the financial terms of the deal earlier this week.
The company, Europe’s largest aerospace group, was facing charges in courts on both sides of the Atlantic. Prosecutors and officials in the U.S, the U.K., and France said the company made illicit payments for years to intermediaries to secure contracts for its planes and other products. In some cases, communications related to payments were allegedly disguised using fake names and coded emails.
French and British authorities have been investigating Airbus for alleged corruption over jet sales dating back more than a decade. At the heart of the Airbus case was a decades-old system of third-party sales agents that involved some 250 people and several hundreds of millions of euros of payments a year at its height. Back then, payments to win deals were tolerated and tax-deductible.
Airbus said it halted payments in 2014 after discovering false statements on the unit and later took its findings to U.K. authorities. An internal investigation led to a board-driven dismissal of top management and an internal fight over responsibility for the lapses. According to France’s financial prosecutor, the company now agreed to three years of “light compliance monitoring” by the country’s anti-corruption agency.
The settlement agreement means Airbus has avoided criminal prosecution. Conviction on the charges could have resulted in the company being barred from public contracts in the U.S. and European Union. French and U.S. prosecutors said the settlement covered Airbus only as a company.
Prosecutors have indicated that individuals involved in related crimes could still face criminal charges. The French prosecutor commented, “With this settlement we’ve completed a first phase … we are now going to have to examine individual responsibilities.”