The Indian VVIP helicopter deal

Introduction

Corruption is a persistent problem in Indian arms procurement, on both a petty and a grand scale. In the case of the 12 VVIP (Very Very Important Person) transport helicopters bought from AgustaWestland in 2010, however, the result of the corruption was not just extra costs for the Indian taxpayer, but a helicopter unable to fly at the high altitudes required to traverse the Himalayas. Using a network of agents, AgustaWestland won the bid by bribing Indian officials to swing the deal, and probably in particular to manipulate the tender specifications in their favour.

Unusually in such cases, the corruption has been openly acknowledged, and led to the prosecution of senior officials in the exporting country: The CEOs at the time of AugustaWestland, and of its parent company Finmeccanica, were convicted of corruption in 2016, although the sentence was suspended by Italy’s highest court, the Court of Cassation. Meanwhile, India cancelled the contract and successfully recovered the money they had already paid. However, so far no one in India has been put on trial over the deal.

Key facts

Buyer country: India

Seller companies and countries: AgustaWestland (UK), subsidiary of Finmeccanica (India)

Year of order: 2010

Equipment sold: 12AW-101 Merlin VVIP Helicopters

Value of deal: EUR 556 million

Sum involved in corruption allegations: EUR 51 million

Dramatis personae

Shashi P. Tyagi: Former head of Indian air force, involved in procurement, alleged bribe recipient.

Giuseppe Orsi, former CEO of Finmeccanica, prosecuted for corruption in Italy.

Bruno Spagnolini, former CEO of AgustaWestland, prosecuted for corruption in Italy.

Christian Michel, UK businessman and agent in the deal.

Guido Hascke: Italian businessman and agent in the deal.

Carlo Gerosa: Hascke’s business partner.

Gautam Khaitan: Indian agent in the deal, alleged conduit for bribes.

Ahmed Patel: Secretary to Sonia Gandhi, leader of Congress Party.

Sanjeev, Sandeep and Rajeev Tyagi, cousins of Shashi Tyagi

The arms deal

In 1999, India identified a a need for new VVIP helicopters to replace their existing Soviet Mi-8 helicopters, which were coming to the end of their service life, and which lacked high altitude and night flying capabilities necessary for flying national leaders to locations in the Himalayas. A tender was first put out in 2002, specifying an altitude requirement for the helicopters of 6,000 meters; however, the original tender was cancelled, supposedly due to it leading to a single source situation. The revised tender issued in 2006 reduced the altitude requirement to 4,500 meters, insufficient for many of the Himalayan tasks required. This change in requirement enabled the AugustaWestland AW-101 Merlin helicopter to compete, while other changes to the specifications ultimately made the AW-101 the only competitor. It is suspected that manipulating the tender requirements in this way was one of the key goals of the bribing of Indian officials by the company. An audit of the procurement found numerous other flaws in the procedure, including a failure to check the reasonableness of price, and the acquisition of 12 helicopters to replace 8, with no clear reason for why 4 extra were needed.

India finally signed a contract with AgustaWestland in 2010, to buy 12 AW-101s for EUR 556 million.[1]

Corruption allegations

Allegations of corruption first became public in 2012. Evidence eventually submitted in Italian courts suggest that AgustaWestland paid EUR 51 million to Indian air force officers, bureaucrats, and politicians, and possibly to Italian politicians. The bribes were paid through three middlemen, Christian Michel, Guido Haschke, and the latter’s partner Carlo Gerosa, using a complex network of accounts and shell companies. Former Indian Air Force head Air Chief Marshall S. P. Tyagi was specifically identified by the Italian Appeals Court as the likely recipient of USD 11m in commissions, some of which was paid through three of his cousins.

As a result of the corruption allegations, the Indian government cancelled the contract in 2013, and was later able to successfully recover EUR 228 million already transferred for the 3 helicopters so far delivered, from funds held in guarantee.

Investigations and outcomes

The Italian Attorney General’s office started investigating the deal in 2011. News of the investigation was made public in February 2012, and the Indian Defence Minister A.K. Anthony ordered a Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) probe the next day.

Italian police raided the offices in Switzerland of Guido Haschke, the key middleman in 2012. Hascke was extradited to Italy and held in prison for 6 months, but was released as part of a plea bargain, whereby he gave evidence crucial to the investigation. As a result, Giuseppe Orsi, CEO of Finmeccanica ,and Bruno Spagnolini, CEO of AgustaWestland were arrested in Italy in February 2013 and charged with corruption. They were acquitted in 2014, but convicted of lesser false bookkeeping charges However, this verdict was overturned on appeal in 2016, and both were convicted of corruption and money laundering and sentenced to 4 and a half years (Orsi) and four years (Spagnolini) in prison. The detailed verdict by the court also made clear that S.P. Tyagi was a likely recipient of the bribes. However, Italy’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, ordered a retrial in December 2016 due to a procedural flaw in the Appeals Court process. As the statute of limitations for the alleged crimes expires at the end of 2017, the case is likely to be closed, as there is insufficient time for a new judicial process.

Finmeccanica agreed to pay a fine of EUR 7.5 million in 2014, in a settlement with Italian prosecutors, in return for corruption charges being dropped.

A key piece of evidence was a tape recording of a discussion between Hashcke, his partner Carlo Gerosa, and an Indian lawyer Gautam Khaitan, in which Hashcke boasted of a complex web of companies and accounts, including in Mauritius, which would make the bribes impossible to trace.

Another piece of evidence reported in 2014 was a note by Christian Michel to Peter Hullett, head of AgustaWestland India, that recommended targeting people [for bribes?] close to Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party, which led to considerable scandal in India. Another note from middleman Guido Hashcke lists what is suspected to be intended recipients of bribes: 6 million euros for “AF” (air force), 8.4 million for “BUR” (bureaucrats), 6 million for “POL” (politicians), and 3 million for “AP”, which some allege refers to Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, although this is not certain.

Guido Hascke’s diaries, which were seized by Italian police in 2012, discussed payments to a variety of people in India and formed part of the evidence.

Meanwhile in India, the CBI issued a “First Information Report” in March 2013, containing corruption allegations against S.P. Tyagi and 12 others in India and Italy, including Orsi, Spagnolini, middlemen Hascke, Michel, and Gerosa, and Gautam Khaitam. Defence Minister A. K. Anthony confirmed in 2013 that bribes had been paid as part of the deal.

In 2014, the Indian Enforcement Directorate (ED) registered a criminal case under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, alleging bribe payments of 4.23 billion rupees (about USD 92 million at the time the contract was signed). The ED subsequently attached properties belonging to cousins of Air Chief Marshall Tyagi in October 2015.

Following the conviction of Orsi and Spagnolini in Italy, evidence from the case was passed to the Indian authorities, which allowed the investigation to gather pace. Tyagi and Khaitan were arrested and questioned by the CBI in December 2016, although as yet charges do not appear to have been brought. Hascke, Michel and Gerosa remain wanted in India, the subject of Interpol ‘Red Notices’ issued by the ED in 2015, although Hascke appears to have been removed from the public Red Notice list in December 2016.

There is a controversy over whether AgustaWestland was ever blacklisted (forbidden to bid on contracts) in India as a result of the scandal. In April 2016, members of the former Congress Party-led government (in power when the scandal broke in 2012) claimed that they blacklisted the company, but that the new National Democratic Alliance government of Narendra Modi had allowed them to bid again. However, the Modi government claimed that their predecessors had never blacklisted the company, and that they, on the contrary, would initiate a process to do so.

Sources

“Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on Acquisition of helicopters for VVIPs”, 13 August 2013, http://www.cag.gov.in/sites/default/files/audit_report_files/Union_Defence_Compliance_Report_10_2013.pdf

“Explaining the VVIP chopper row that has rocked Parliament”, Sushant Singh, Indian Express, 9 December 2016, http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/agusta-westland-vvip-helicopter-deal-behind-the-moving-parts-2773448/

“India helo bid costs Finmeccanica $309m”, Tom Kington, Defence News, 16 June 2014, available at https://defence.pk/pdf/threads/india-helo-bid-costs-finmeccanica-309m-firm-signs-china-deals.319621/

“Italian businessman Guido Haschke’s diary: key to AgustaWestland deal payments”, Manu Pubby, The Economic Times, 11 Dec. 2016, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/italian-businessman-guido-haschkes-diary-key-to-agustawestland-deal-payments/articleshow/52099136.cms

“Corruption took place in AgustaWestland VVIP chopper deal, former IAF chief SP Tyagi was involved”, Manu Pubby, The Economic Times, 11 Dec. 2016, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/corruption-took-place-in-agustawestland-vvip-chopper-deal-former-iaf-chief-sp-tyagi-was-involved-italian-court/articleshow/51985855.cms

“We built maze of companies to route bribes to India, middleman Hashke says on Agusta tape”, Richi Dua, 30 Apr. 2016, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/exclusive-india-today-accesses-key-agusta-tapes-ed-speeds-up-probe/1/656135.html

“CBI Arrests Former Air Chief Marshall SP Tyagi in VVIP Chopper Scam Case”, Sudhi Ranjan Sen, Huffington Post India, 9 December 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2016/12/09/cbi-arrests-former-air-chief-marshall-sp-tyagi-in-vvip-chopper-s/

“Guido Haschke, Key Suspect In VVIP Helicopter Scam, Mysteriously Disappears From Interpol’s ‘Wanted List’”, Sudhi Ranjan Sen, Huffington Post India, 12 December 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2016/12/12/exclusive-guido-haschke-key-suspect-in-vvip-helicopter-scam/

[1] AgustaWestland is a helicopter producer, and a subsidiary of the Italian defence giant Finmeccanica. It was formed in 2000 from the merger of Finmeccanica’s Agusta subsidiary, and Westland Helicopters in the UK, a subsidiary of civilian and defence engineering company GKN, with each company holding a 50% stake. GKN sold their stake to Finmeccanica in 2004. While the AW-101 helicopters are produced in the UK, this deal was negotiated by the parent company in Italy.

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