Czechs ask US to help in probe into bribery allegations around deal to buy Gripen jet fighters

PRAGUE (AP) — The Czech Republic has asked the United States to help with a corruption inquiry into a lucrative 2002 deal to buy 24 JAS-39 Gripen jet fighters from BAE Systems, the prosecutor general's office said Thursday.

Prosecutor General Renata Vesecka approached the U.S. Department of Justice in July after receiving a help offer from the U.S. to look into the case, spokeswoman Renata Malinova said.

Britain's BAE Systems, the world's No. 2 defense contractor, said in February it would pay fines totaling more than $400 million after reaching settlements with Britain's anti-fraud agency and the U.S. Justice Department to end decades-long investigations into the company for allegations of bribery, including for contracts in Tanzania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Saudi Arabia.

Czech prosecutors had investigated the Gripen case but dropped it twice in the past, saying in 2002 and again last last year that no crime was committed. Vesecka announced in March she was reopening the case and said the previous police investigation was not done properly and more work still has to be done.

Malinova declined to give any details about what information the Czechs were seeking to get from the U.S.

The government originally agreed to buy the jet fighters by Sweden's Saab and Britain's BAE Systems in April 2002 but had to cancel that plan after devastating floods in 2002 left the country with a staggering cleanup bill. It later decided to lease 14 of the same jet fighters.

Switzerland and Austria have also been investigating Czech politicians accused of taking bribes, and Czech prosecutors have met their counterparts in those countries to discuss the case, Malinova said.

As part of its investigation, Britain's Serious Fraud Office requested help from Switzerland to trace the flow of about €1 million ($1.3 million) sent to Swiss bank accounts via the British Virgin Islands and Panama. The Serious Fraud Office has also charged an Austrian count and a former BAE agent, Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly, with corruption over defense contracts between the arms company and some European countries, including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Austria.

Malinova said Vesecka also approached her British counterpart with a request for help but didn't receive any because the case was settled in Britain.

BAE Systems said under its agreement with Washington, it would plead guilty to one criminal charge of conspiring to make false statements to the U.S. government over regulatory filings in 2000 and 2002.

The U.S. Justice Department said that since 2000, BAE intentionally failed to put anti-bribery preventative measures in place, contrary to promises it made to the U.S. government.