PARIS (Reuters) - Airbus directors publicly backed Chief Executive Tom Enders on Thursday in the face of European investigations into the use of middlemen in airplane sales and a $2 billion fighter deal.
But in a sign of the disquiet within the aerospace group, the board only declared its support for Enders after its own review of senior management, two people familiar with the matter said.
The investigations by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office and later its French counterpart were triggered by Airbus in 2016 when it reported itself to UK authorities after uncovering flawed documents over the use of intermediaries in airplane sales.
Enders and legal counsel John Harrison have come under fire from within Airbus and in the French media for opening the floodgates to widening investigations and for overseeing what several insiders have called an internal witch-hunt.
The Airbus board defended the decision to alert UK authorities to its initial findings.
“These decisions were made with the board’s unanimous approval and actions were all directed by Tom Enders, the company’s CEO,” it said in a statement.
“The Board has full trust and confidence in Tom and depends on his leadership to continue the transformation of the company and in particular our compliance program alongside our General Counsel, John Harrison,” it added.
The board’s own assessment of the group’s top executives was carried out over the summer and was commissioned to evaluate whether senior managers played any role that created risks for the company. No such evidence was discovered, the people said.
Enders has been placed under separate investigation in Vienna over a 2003 Eurofighter sale to Austria, but has denied any wrongdoing and says the probe is politically charged.
The board’s decision to examine its own top management highlights efforts being taken to restore stability after months of tension as the corruption row deepens.
Airbus Chairman Denis Ranque continues to support Enders, but people familiar with the discussions say he is choosing his words carefully pending the outcome of the probe.
“There is certainly some alarm at board level,” a person familiar with the discussions said.
Enders has promised to drive through sweeping changes in the company’s culture as legal experts say Airbus is preparing the ground for what it hopes could be a deal with UK prosecutors.
He told staff in a letter disclosed to Reuters last week to prepare for turbulence and that he and Harrison had the board’s unanimous backing to lead Airbus out of the legal crisis.
Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Alexander Smith