Ericsson’s sale of radar systems to Greece

Introduction

 The economic and fiscal crisis that struck Greece in 2009 has also led to widespread corruption investigations, unearthing vast corruption by politicians and others across Greek industry that is widely seen as one of the factors behind the crisis. The military sector is certainly no exception, and whistleblowers have suggested that virtually all arms contracts signed by Greece in the 1990s and early 2000s were subject to commissions, or bribes. Former Defence Minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos is one of those who has been imprisoned as a result of the scandals (see German submarine sales to Greece).

One contract that has come under particular scrutiny recently is the sale, in 1999, of 4 Erieye Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) systems by Swedish company Ericsson Microwave (subsequently sold by Ericsson to Saab in 2006). The radar systems were mounted on Brazilian Embraer AEW&C aircraft. The sale was an important one for Ericsson as it was the first of the Erieye to a NATO member. Whistleblowers from both the Greek Ministry of Defence (MOD) and from Ericsson have revealed bribes amounting to $13 million. Investigations are ongoing, with Greek prosecutors recently recommending that 17 individuals stand trial.

Key facts

Buyer: Greece

Sellers: Ericsson (Sweden), Embraer (Brazil)

Year of order: 1999

Equipment sold: 4 Erieye AEW&C systems; 4 Embraer EMB-145H aircraft.

Value of deal: €532 million

Sum involved in corruption investigations: SEK116 million ($13 million)

Dramatis Personae

 Akis Tsohatzopoulos: Greek Defence Minister (1996-2001). Served five years of a 20-year jail sentence from 2012-17 for receiving bribes on various arms contracts.

Antonis Kantas: Deputy armaments chief at the Greek MOD (1997-2002). Admitted to receiving bribes totaling $13 million in relation to the Erieye sale and other arms deals. Began providing evidence to Greek prosecutors in 2013.

Yannis Sbokos: Greek General Secretary for Procurements, primary recipient of bribes in Greece for the deal. Currently serving a life sentence on two separate counts of money laundering.

Thomas Liakounakos: Greek businessman, Saab’s main Greek agent for the deal.

Christos Toumbas: Saab’s secondary agent for the deal.

Giorgos Kamaris: Friend of Yannis Sbokos, and official owner of shell company Highwood; admitted in 2015 that Sbokos was real beneficial owner.

Bertil Hellström: Export marketing chief at Ericsson Microwave Systems at the time of the deal, managed company’s relations with agents, signed order for payment of SEK116 million to Liakounakos.

Liss-Olof Nenzell: Former Ericsson employee who organized worldwide system for paying agents for the company. Started providing evidence to SEC in 2012.

Peter Coleridge: British businessman in Monaco, handled money transfers from Ericsson through various accounts to ultimate recipients.

The deal

 Greece selected the Ericsson Microwave Systems Erieye AEW&C radar system, to be mounted on the Brazilian Embraer EMB-145 transport aircraft, over an American competitor, in December 1998.[1] The planes and accompanying radars are intended to monitor Greek airspace and islands, where Greece has long-running territorial disputes with Turkey; while the risk of armed conflict is very low, the disputes are frequently the precipitant of aerial mock dogfights between Greek and Turkish planes. A sale to Greece would therefore allow Ericsson’s system to be tested in action, as well as mark an entry into the NATO market.

Following further negotiations, Greece signed a contract with Ericsson in July 1999 for 4 Erieye systems, for ’over 4 billion Swedish crowns’ (about $500 million at the time). Including the 4 Embraer aircraft, the total value of the deal is generally cited as being worth $575 million.

The systems were delivered from 2002 to 2008, and entered service in 2009.

Corruption allegations

During the 1990s, Ericsson retained the services of two agents in Greece to help sell its Erieye system to the Greek government: Thomas Liakounakos, a leading Greek arms sales agent, and retired air force officer Christos Toumbas. Contracts signed with Ericsson provided for Liakounakos to receive 6% of the value of the deal, of which two-thirds was to be transferred to a company controlled by Yannis Sbokos, General Secretary for Procurement at the Greek Ministry of Defence. In 2000, SEK116 million (about $13 million) was transferred to the agent’s company via a series of transactions through Switzerland, Monaco, and Liberia. The money was subsequently transferred to Sbokos and other Greek officials over 2000-2002, being partly invested in property in Beirut and Russia.

The investigations

 Serious investigations into the case began in 2012 when former Ericsson executive Liss-Olof Nenzell began providing evidence to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regarding a worldwide network of commission payments to agents he had managed during the 1990s and 2000s. Nenzell claimed that he only began to be suspicious over time that these payments were for corrupt purposes, and that he expressed his concerns to management but was ignored. Among the payments with which he was involved was a $12 million transfer, related to the Greek deal, to the Monaco bank account of British agent Peter Coleridge. When Barclays Bank refused to release the payment, suspecting that it was corrupt, Nenzell and another Ericsson executive travelled to Monaco to secure the payment’s release. Nenzell says the money was used to bribe decision-makers in Greece.

The case in Greece developed in 2013 when Antonis Kantas, formerly deputy head of armaments at the Greek MOD, began providing evidence to prosecutors regarding this and other deals. One of the decision-makers in the deal, he had received at least one bribe of €250,000 from agent Christos Toumbas, and had over five years managed to hide at least €10 million in corrupt payments in various bank accounts.

The story became public in 2014 when Swedish Radio program Ekot broadcast a report detailing the allegations from Nenzell and Kantas, including a SEK116 million payment to Peter Coleridge, and conducting its own investigation.

After Toumbas provided evidence to police, the lead agent in the affair, Thomas Liakounakos, was arrested and charged with paying bribes of at least €2 million to Yannis Sbokos and former defence minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos. Both of these were already serving jail terms for money laundering and corruption in relation to other cases.

In 2016, Greek prosecutors published more documents from the case, pointing to Yannis Sbokos as the key recipient of bribes in the affair, and the true beneficial owner of Caribbean-registered company Highwood, nominally owned by his friend Giorgos Kamaris, which had received the $13 million in commission payments from Ericsson. (See graphic.) Seven current or former Ericsson employees were among those suspected of involvement in the affair. The payment order for the key transaction was signed by Ericsson’s export marketing chief, Bertil Hellström.

In March 2017, prosecutors recommended to an Appeals Court panel that 17 individuals should stand trial in relation to the case.

As yet, no investigation has been opened in Sweden, as bribery crimes have a statute of limitations of ten years. (See here).

Sources

 2014: first EKOT program http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=83&artikel=5826945

2015: Reuters article on arrest of Liakounakos: http://www.reuters.com/article/greece-corruption-arrest-idUSL5N11Z44F20150929

2016: EKOT article with details of investigation: http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=83&artikel=6456885

Further details: http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=1637&artikel=6457493

2016: EKOT graph, timeline, people involved etc.: http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=83&artikel=6455795

2017: National Herald article on recommendations for prosecutions: https://www.thenationalherald.com/154429/greek-prosecutor-ties-17-suspects-defense-ministry-bribes/

2016: Nenzell hands over docs to US authorities. http://www.expressen.se/dinapengar/han-vill-avsloja-ericssons-mutor/

http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=83&artikel=6569981

SVT article on Ericsson bribes generally, 2016: https://www.svt.se/nyheter/ekonomi/avslojar-sa-jobbade-ericsson-med-mutor-smorjde-ministrar-med-miljoner?

 

[1] SIPRi Arms Transfers Database