Austria sues over 'fraudulent' Eurofighter deal

Vienna (AFP) - Austria sued European aerospace giant Airbus on Thursday over a 2003 Eurofighter deal that was long alleged to have been highly shady, seeking up to 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) in damages.

Austria's defence ministry said that the lawsuit, filed on Thursday, accused Airbus and the Eurofighter consortium of deliberately hoodwinking Vienna over the two-billion-euro order.

"Austria would have never decided to buy the Eurofighter jets in 2003 without the fraudulent deception by Airbus and Eurofighter," Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil said.

A spokesman for a "surprised" Airbus said that Vienna has yet to provide it with any information about its move, saying that it had only learned about the lawsuit from media reports.

"The reported allegations, in particular those of fraud and deception, are incomprehensible to us. They appear contrived and we explicitly reject them," the spokesman told AFP via email.

"We see today's action as a political manoeuvre," he said. The firm would however fully cooperate with the Austrian authorities, he added.

- Prestige project -

The Eurofighter Typhoon is a major prestige product for the European defence industry, with 475 aircraft delivered so far to Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain, as well as to Austria and Saudi Arabia.

The four founding nations in the consortium -- Germany, Spain, Britain and Italy -– all use the planes in their own air forces. Other contracts have been signed with Oman and Kuwait.

As well as Airbus Defence and Space, representing Germany and Spain, the consortium includes British group BAE Systems and Italian firm Leonardo. The total supply chain employs some 100,000 people.

Austria was the first country outside the consortium to sign up, ordering in 2003 18 of the aircraft, which then dropped to 15 because of budgetary constraints.

Negotiations had begun in 2000, stirring unease in the neutral Alpine country -- it is not in NATO -- and allegations started to swirl about kickbacks to politicians and others.

A graft probe was set up in 2007 and led to the suspension of the then air force chief following revelations that his wife's company had been paid 87,600 euros by a lobbyist.

- 'Taxpayers pay bribes' -

In 2012 Austrian and German authorities launched a probe into Airbus, previously called EADS, to investigate whether officials had been paid millions of euros through advisory firms to secure the contract.

Prosecutors in Munich are set to publish their preliminary findings later this year.

In late January, Airbus had already agreed to pay tens of millions of euros in additional taxes over an allegedly shady 90-million-euro payment linked to the Austrian Eurofighter contract.

The new "Task Force" report presented on Thursday, five years in the making, alleges that Airbus knowingly misled Austria about the purchase price, delivery times and the jets' technical equipment.

In particular Austria wants to claw back 183.4 million euros in additional costs in "legal... and also criminal" commissions allegedly paid to lobbyists and others that Vienna says was not specified in the deal.

"It is not acceptable that taxpayers pick up the tab for bribes," Doskozil said.

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