The French Connection Did Alstom Bribe like Siemens?

Like its German competitor Siemens, France's Alstom Group is alleged to have used a system of bribes to buy its way into contracts worldwide. But in France politicians and the media have shielded the company.

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy almost single-handedly saved Alstom from bankruptcy. Pictured here is the company's new high-speed AGV train, the planned successor to the TGV.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy almost single-handedly saved Alstom from bankruptcy. Pictured here is the company's new high-speed AGV train, the planned successor to the TGV.

The fax was sent in 1998, a time now long past. The corruption scandal that would consume German electronics and engineering giant Siemens was still in the distant future, and public trust in the big names of European industry was still intact.

The fax, from a bank in Liechtenstein, was sent to Oehri Treuhand, a Liechtenstein foundation, and Gerry Oehri, the head of the foundation. The bank wanted Oehri to explain a few things about one of his discreet companies.

The company, Crofthill Consulting, which Oehri managed, had an account with the bank, but its headquarters -- or, to be exact, its mailbox -- on the British Virgin Islands. And when a bank like this suddenly receives an incoming wire transfer for $4 million (€2.6 million), source unknown, it often becomes suspicious that money laundering is at play.

But no, Oehri responded pleasantly, Crofthill earned its money the hard way, as a consultant to a power plant in Indonesia. "Mr. Oehri," the bank noted, "assures us that this deal is legitimate, because it involves one of the largest companies in France."

The reference to the size of an industrial enterprise was still considered a calming factor in those days. Today though, in the wake of the Siemens scandal, it seems absurd. In fact, as is now known, the company mentioned in the fax was Alstom, and the French were apparently involved in deals very similar to activities at German competitor Siemens.

Siemens also apparently secured contracts with bogus agreements, letterbox companies and, especially, with large bribes. Using alleged consulting companies like Crofthill, Siemens apparently "removed millions from the company accounts and transferred them to so-called black funds," slush funds to be used as bribes to gain the support of decision-makers the world over. This, at least, is the conclusion Swiss investigators reach in a report on their investigation.

But while Siemens is being harassed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Munich-based company has been forced to shell out giant sums to conduct its own investigation and has fluctuated back and forth between self-doubt and self-destruction, the French are only too happy to quietly set aside their scandal.

Graphic: Alston and Siemens compared

Graphic: Alston and Siemens compared

A central figure in the Alstom file is Swiss banker Oscar Holenweger. He is believed to have distributed many millions to Alstom, with which the company, a maker of high-speed trains, subways and power plant turbines, secured contracts in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

But in Switzerland Holenweger first became known to authorities because investigators suspected that the businessman had something completely different up his sleeve: laundering money for a Columbian drug cartel.

In their zeal to pursue Holenweger, the Swiss even borrowed an undercover investigator from the state office of criminal investigation in the German state of Baden-Württemberg as a lure. But by the end of the operation, Valentin Roschacher, the Swiss Prosecutor General, had been dismissed, partly because the search for Columbian drug money yielded no results -- or, at least, almost no results.

When auditors from the accounting and consulting firm KPMG, hired by the Swiss Federal Banking Commission, visited Holenweger's secretary in January 2004 (she was on maternity leave at the time), the woman handed over 10 file folders Holenweger had given her for safekeeping: five black, two blue, one green, one red and one white folder. The colorful collection suddenly painted Holenweger in a new light: not as a banker to drug lords, but apparently as Alstom's middleman for deals that could only be obtained with bribes.

According to a document prepared by the Swiss investigators, "the Swiss investigative authorities strongly suspect that senior officials at the Alstom Group systematically embezzled money for years and horded it in so-called 'black funds'," and that it did so "with the help of the suspect, Holenweger." The investigators distinguish between two phases. One is the period from 1995 to 2000, when French companies could not be held criminally liable at home for paying bribes abroad, and when all they had to do was avoid being caught in those countries. The other is the ensuing period, which Swiss investigators believe continued until at least 2003, when Alstom was forced to conceal its questionable dealings more effectively, because French law had become more restrictive.

Holenweger was Alstom's man in both periods. On Oct. 22, 1998, for example, he met with Patrick M., an executive, at Alstom's Paris headquarters. Two months later, Holenweger sent M. a draft of a consultancy contract with a company called Compania de Asesores de Energia, supposedly founded in Panama by one of Holenweger's partners.

The company's role was allegedly to provide information that would help in the bidding process for a hydroelectric power plant in Brazil. But Swiss investigators are convinced that the company never provided any consulting services, and that its sole purpose was to forward the supposed consulting fee, after deduction of Holenweger's usual two-percent cut, to the possible recipients of bribes, who secured the contract for Alstom. Investigators suspect that between 1995 and 2003, "several hundred million (French) francs" were laundered in this fashion through letterbox companies in Panama, the Bahamas or Liechtenstein.

To conceal the connection to Alstom, company executives allegedly faxed their handwritten payment orders to Holenweger. Documents indicate that Holenweger then carefully transferred the secret messages to his own letterhead, which included his name and a P.O. box in Zurich, but not the address of his Tempus Bank. Then he apparently sent these letters to those financial institutions where the ominous consulting firms had stashed the Alstom funds -- apparently to be transferred to bribed decision-makers.


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