Seeking clean chits or leads from middlemen is a bad idea

AgustaWestland Arms dealers and bribe givers dont write chequesFile photo: PTI
Voices Thursday, May 12, 2016 - 06:56

Many years ago an arms dealer told me this. Their sense of what is right and wrong is not swayed by sentiment he said. They were professionals like any others, they had a job to do, they analysed markets, needs and sought out the highest bidder. They were not corrupt – they sought value for their products including sub-standard products. Too bad if the buyers had not done their homework. He insisted their business was legal, commissions are built into their bids and cost-escalation is not their problem. I got the sense he was trying to say arms dealers are neither greedy nor stupid. In the Bofors case – the context of our meetings – the intermediaries had cut their losses, he said. He was wrong. I will tell you why in a bit.

“Rules and regulations are for politicians and governments – especially on paper,” he said as we sat in his penthouse in Geneva overlooking lac Léman. It is politicians who have to worry about their reputation because most of them think they have an impeachable one. It is they who sign grand declarations at the United Nations (UN) and other international bodies about where, when and how arms must be sold. “They need their fig leaves, we don’t,” he said, adding that “…unlike politicians, we don’t let each other down – we honour our word.”  

As I watch media exclusives in India with people possibly involved with the AgustaWestland scam either as facilitators, middlemen, lawyers or implementation partners, two thoughts cross my mind. One, arms dealers don’t write cheques. There will never be a document that goes beyond a certain level of people who, if caught, will spend a few years in jail.  In the AgustaWestland case for now that level stops with middleman Guido Hashcke and Carlos Gerosa abroad (Italy and Switzerland) and the Tyagi brothers in India. The corruption obviously does not stop there. There is a political component.

Secondly, there is a hierarchy among arms dealers and many do not necessarily meet the political beneficiaries. In some cases, they may even not know who they are if all goes well. That is what happened in the Bofors case. The middleman Win Chadha – who worked on the contract for years in Delhi – saw his commission being cut into at the last minute. Contractually he could have taken Bofors to court, but he didn’t because the person who cut into his pie was Ottavio Quattrocchi fronted by A.E. Services. The only reference to this payment and it links to Rajiv Gandhi was in the diary and notes of Martin Ardbo, Managing Director of Bofors and key negotiator of the howitzer deal.  In them there was a meeting in Geneva with a “…Gandhi trustee lawyer” and also deep concerns about keeping out the name of  “…Q because of his closeness to R.” As the investigation revealed, Quattrocchi played a key role in closing the deal with Ardbo and was swiftly paid.

The company A.E. Services guaranteed Bofors that the contract would be signed within a stipulated period of time failing which it does not have to be paid. This is the political payment. It typically moves in when all the numbers are on the table. Is there a similar payment chronology in AgustaWestland?  

Ardbo’s counterparts in the AgustaWestland case are former Finmeccanica Chairman Giuseppe Orsi and ex-chairman of the chopper company Bruno Spagnolini.  An Italian court has awarded them jail sentences for corruption. A note presented in the Italian court sent by alleged key middleman Christian Michel asks Peter Hullet, an AgustaWestland employee to target key advisors of Congress head Sonia Gandhi. The note also contains details of bribes to people identified among others as ‘AP’. Is this Ms. Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmad Patel?

For now, the links to the Congress party leaders is a hypothesis, an indication that all investigators – media and Indian officials – have to dig better and not settle for the obvious and the apparent. We in the media must steer clear of arms dealers and their Delhi-based touts offering to clear the air and arrange interviews. The reason I am sharing my interactions with the world of arms dealers and middlemen from their perspective is to make the short point that they are not stupid people. They know key actors including in the media. They can send journalists on a wild goose chase. They have every politician’s number – literally and figuratively. The arms dealer in Geneva also told me all of them know which politician is corrupt, how far an envelope can be pushed and where are rest the key buttons in any deal. There is even a rate-card to push files through various tables.

Back to why the arms dealer was wrong when he told me people in his business know when to cut their losses and retreat. When I shared this then with Sten Lindström the key Swedish police investigator who gave me the massive cache of documents, he had this to say. According to him in deals such as Bofors most players don’t know what the others know, especially the politicians who have the most to hide.  It is because of them that money is transferred in a circuitous way so water is suitably muddied.

Underestimating the heavy hitters among the arms dealers and middlemen is as foolish as believing politicians who say they have nothing to hide.  But there is no need to overestimate them either or chase them for bits and pieces of the puzzle. The AgustaWestland money trail will be a difficult one to crack, but it is not impossible. Investigators have to wait in the right places and settings for someone to crack or something to give. It always does.

It is impossible to believe that Congress leaders have stalled Indian parliament to save the Tyagi brothers.



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