Austria investigates former minister over Eurofighter deal

VIENNA (Reuters) - Vienna prosecutors are broadening their probe into a $2 billion Eurofighter jet purchase by Austria and are investigating former defense minister Norbert Darabos for breach of trust, a spokeswoman said on Monday.

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The prosecutors launched investigations against Airbus and the Eurofighter consortium in February 2017 after the defense ministry said it believed they had misled Austria about the price, deliverability and equipment of the 2003 deal.

Their investigations involve individuals including Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders. The consortium and Enders have denied the accusations.

Darabos, who agreed a settlement with Eurofighter in 2007 to reduce the order, is the first known former cabinet member to formally be targeted by prosecutors.

“I can confirm that Mr (Norbert) Darabos is under investigation for alleged breach of trust,” a spokeswoman for the Vienna prosecutors said, confirming earlier reports by Austrian dailies Kurier and Kronen Zeitung but not elaborating any further.

Darabos was not immediately available for comment. Now member of the Burgenland regional government, he told Austrian daily Kurier that he had been questioned by prosecutors several months ago.

Austria’s 2003 purchase of 18 Eurofighter jets, approved by the then-conservative-far right coalition government, linked to bribery accusations from the outset. A parliamentary inquiry, set up under a Social Democratic-led government in 2006, explicitly sought reasons to cancel the contract.

But in 2007, Defence Minister Darabos, also a Social Democrat, agreed a settlement with the Eurofighter consortium to reduce the order to 15 jets from 18 and the volume of side deals to 3.5 billion euros from 4 billion euros.

Those so-called offset deals are common in large arms deals and meant to let local businesses benefit.

A second parliamentary inquiry examined the settlement last year.

While it found no indications of bribery or that Airbus and its partners illegally influenced Austrian politicians, the committee’s final report assessed that Darabos did not liaise sufficiently with other ministries and agencies while negotiating the settlement and was not transparent enough to allow a court audit of the deal.

Reporting by Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich, Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Toby Chopra