Former Formula 1 team owner Tony Fernandes has found himself caught up in a bribery scandal over Airbus’ sponsorship of his now defunct Caterham F1 team.
Fernandes is the founder and chairman of Asian budget airline AirAsia, which has been named in the bribery case along with several other airlines, which has already seen European aerospace company Airbus facing fines exceeding €3.5 billion.
Fernandes involvement centres on a sponsorship deal between Airbus parent company EADS, which sponsored the F1 team for multiple seasons. The case alleges that AirAsia’s decision to only purchase Airbus aircraft was therefore influenced by the sponsor deal which was worth millions to Caterham.
Details of the case were issued last week by Dame Victoria Sharp, president of the Queen’s Bench Division of the Royal Courts of Justice.
“The first count alleges that contrary to section 7 of the Bribery Act 2010, between 1 July 2011 and 1 June 2015, Airbus SE failed to prevent persons associated with Airbus SE from bribing others concerned with the purchase of aircraft by AirAsia and AirAsia X airlines from Airbus, namely directors and/or employees of AirAsia airlines where the said bribery was intended to obtain or retain business or advantage in the conduct of business for Airbus SE.
“The improper payment consisted of $50 million (and Airbus employees also offered but did not pay an additional $55 Million) paid to directors and/or employees of AirAsia and AirAsia X airlines as sponsorship for a sports team.
“The sports team was jointly owned by AirAsia Executive 1 and AirAsia Executive 2 but was legally unrelated to AirAsia and AirAsia X.”
Fernandes and AirAsia rejected the claims in a statement issued on Monday, adding that the sponsor deal had no bearing on the decision to purchase Airbus aircraft.
“The involvement of Airbus in the sponsorship of the sports team was a well-known and widely-publicised matter bringing branding and other benefits to Airbus.
“AirAsia’s own sponsorship of the sports team went through due internal assessment and approvals before being considered and approved by the board.”
The airline however confirmed that Fernandes and executive chairman Datuk Kamarudin bin Meranun would step aside from their duties for two months to allow an investigation to take place.
In a separate statement, Fernandes and Kamarudin added: “Caterham F1, the company alleged to have been sponsored improperly by Airbus, was at the relevant time a Formula 1 racing team that had gone round the globe promoting amongst others AirAsia, AirAsia X, GE and Airbus.
“Throughout the period we were shareholders in Caterham, the company made no profit and was eventually disposed of for [£1] in 2014. From start to finish, this was a branding exercise and not a venture to make profit.”