PARIS --- Italy’s supreme Court of Cassation on Wednesday acquitted Giuseppe Orsi, the former president of defense and aerospace giant Finmeccanica (now Leonardo) of charges related to alleged bribes paid in exchange for a 556-million-euro contract to sell 12 AW101 helicopters to the Indian government.
Bruno Spagnolini, the former CEO of helicopters subsidiary AgustaWestland, was also cleared as Italy's top court of appeal upheld a January 2018 Milan appeals court verdict.
In December 2016 the Cassation ordered a re-trial of a first appeals court ruling, which had resulted in guilty verdicts for international corruption and fake invoicing, but which the Corte di Cassazione found there was no evidence to justify conviction.
In 2018 another appeals court acquitted the two. No further appeal by prosecutors is possible after Wednesday's second Cassazione ruling in the case.
We have reported extensively about this disgraceful episode in Italian legal history, in which junior investigating magistrates decided to prosecute the two CEOs on undocumented allegations of bribery by a former employee.
India’s notoriously sensationalist media seized upon the same allegation to create an international scandal, sparking off a separate but parallel Indian investigation that continues to this day and still shows no sign of abating despite having turned up no corroborating proof.
After seven years of legal procedures, nothing subsists of the original allegations. The investigating magistrates have been promoted and moved on, but the two executives had their careers and their lives broken for no reason other than to feed the ego of those same magistrates. India canceled the helicopter contract, costing AgustaWestland €560 million in lost revenues as well as a 226-million euro surety and performance bonds that the Indian government obtained when it canceled the contract.
Finmeccanica and its subsidiaries also lost access to the Indian defense market.
The way the two companies dropped the two executives, long-standing employees with unblemished careers, like hot potatoes once they were charged, and then provided them with no assistance in their subsequent legal troubles, is not to their corporate credit.
India continues to look for bribes
A separate but related trial into suspected corruption and money laundering is still running in India, where Christian Michel, an alleged middleman for Finmeccanica, was extradited from Dubai and has been jailed in India since Dec. 4 under primitive conditions to force him to confess to bribery and money laundering.
And on Thursday, the day after Italy’s Cassazione finally sealed legal proceedings in the case, India’s Enforcement Directorate “filed a supplementary charge sheet in the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper scam against an alleged defence agent, Sushen Mohan Gupta, who, according to the agency, played a key role in laundering the bribes paid to secure the contract, the Hindustan Times reported Thursday. “This is fifth charge sheet filed by ED in the case,” it added.
Indian investigators are unlikely to find any evidence of bribery not only because there was none, but also because they are barking up the wrong tree.
The original Indian charges alleged that a retired Indian Air Force chief of staff accepted bribes to change an operational requirement (maximum altitude) for the VVIP helicopters so AgustaWestland could qualify.
But an Indian Ministry of Defence document issued on February 14, 2013, titled “Acquisition of AW-101 Choppers for IAF: The Facts,” chronicles in great detail how and why the altitude requirement was changed by a succession of high-level government committees. There was clearly no need, and indeed no opportunity, for the then IAF chief of staff to intervene.
Nonetheless, that document was ignored by Italy’s investigating magistrates, and now continues to be ignored by Indian investigators from the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation, who seem to have staked whatever reputation they have left on finding some, or any, evidence of bribery.
Clearly, there are dark undercurrents in this case that go beyond even India’s no-holds-barred political infighting, and sadly the authorities will continue to look for evidence of bribery even though, in seven years, not the tiniest speck of proof has been found.
Click here for our 2015 analysis of the case, after the first Italian appeal exonerated the two Italian executives, and
Click here for our 2018 report on the second Milan appeals court ruling, which was upheld Wednesday by the Corte di Cassazione.