French court begins Airbus insider trading trial after 8-year probe

PARIS: A long-awaited French corporate trial involving allegations of insider trading in the shares of Airbus Group gets under way on Friday, marking the climax of an eight-year investigation.

Seven current and former managers at Europe's largest aerospace group, and two former industrial shareholders, are accused of trying to profit from inside knowledge of problems with two jet developments and a deteriorating financial outlook when they sold shares in what was then EADS in 2006.

All deny the charges and are expected to argue that the trial should not be taking place because they have already been cleared by the French stock market regulator, highlighting a growing debate about "double jeopardy" rules.

The trial is seen as unlikely to be called off, however.

Current managers facing trial include John Leahy, the sales chief of plane making subsidiary Airbus; Alain Flourens, who heads the planemaker's A380 program; and Andreas Sperl, formerly the Airbus finance director and now chief executive officer of Airbus Group's freighter conversion subsidiary EFW.

Those charged will not be expected to appear daily in court.

Former managers on trial include Noel Forgeard, the former co-chief executive of EADS and once an adviser to former President Jacques Chirac.

French media group Lagardere and German car firm Daimler, which reduced their stakes in EADS shortly after the deadline for individual transactions but still before an announcement which hit EADS stock, are also in court.

The three-week Paris trial will take place without a jury in front of a panel of judges in an ornate chamber of the Palais de Justice best known as a place for auctioning off seized property or as the scene of previous high-profile corporate trials.

Legal experts say a verdict is likely to be given weeks or months after the trial closes and that the appeals process, in the case of convictions, can take years.

The trial will offer a rare glimpse of the inner workings and decision-making of one Europe's most strategic industrial companies and is expected to revive memories of Franco-German in-fighting and strategy disputes its leaders want to forget.

However, Airbus Group has reshaped itself in recent years and is basking in record demand for its passenger jets, and barring stunning new revelations most analysts do not expect the trial to have a direct impact on its current business.

The company itself is not on trial but has said it backs all those facing charges.


Prosecutors are expected to argue that executives knew the full extent of industrial problems on the A380 and the likelihood of a costly redesign of the A350 when they sold shares up to March 2006. Similar accusations apply to the two industrial shareholders, which sold shares in April 2006.

The announcement of worsening delays on the A380 and a large profit warning wiped 26 percent from the EADS stock price on June 13, 2006, erasing 5.5 billion euros ($6.96 billion) of market value.

The revelations triggered a crisis in industrial relations between France and Germany, where the largest Airbus factories are based, and a rapid swirl of management changes.

Defendants will argue that the full extent of delays and cost overruns on the A380, the world's largest passenger jet, was unknown at the time shares were sold, and that a breakdown in the installation of wiring only became apparent in May.

They will also argue that a costly overhaul of the design of the A350, adopted in late 2006, was not the most likely scenario when they sold their stock earlier that year, as prosecutors claim. The completed A350 won safety approval this week.

If convicted, individual defendants face a fine up to 10 times the amount gained from the share deals and up to two years in prison, though jail terms are rare. The two companies standing on trial face a maximum fine of 50 times the profit they received from the share sales if they are found guilty.- Reuters
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