By Tim Hepher
PARIS, Dec 20 () - Shares in Europe's Airbus fell sharply on Thursday after Le Monde newspaper reported the United States had opened an investigation into allegations of corruption, raising the stakes of probes already under way in Britain and France.
The French newspaper said Airbus could face record fines of several billion euros as a result of the combined probes into allegations of fraud, corruption and bribery.
The U.S. Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
In an obliquely worded statement reflecting standing instructions from fraud agencies not to comment on media reports directly, Airbus said it was already co-operating with UK and French probes triggered in 2016 by its own internal audit.
It also noted it had previously disclosed that U.S. authorities had sought information on the case and added, "Here, too, Airbus is co-operating with the U.S. authorities in close coordination with the (British) SFO and (French) PNF."
Estimates of a fine as large as 4-5 billion euros as a result of the reported U.S. action are about twice previous estimates, but several analysts said the stock market reaction was overdone against a backdrop of jittery global markets.
Vertical Research Partners analyst Rob Stallard said the 4-billion-euro drop in Airbus's value extended a fragile period driven by broader economic concerns and French wage protests.
At the centre of the case is a decades-old system of third-party agents or intermediaries run from a now-disbanded headquarters unit which at its height involved some 250 people across parts of the world and several hundreds of millions of euros of payments a year, insiders say.
Airbus is in the throes of a board-driven management clearout designed to demonstrate cooperation and change the face of the company in the hopes of winning a judicial settlement on the use of middlemen, a practice it says ended in 2014.
Such a settlement would likely involve a fine and management upheaval but would avoid criminal prosecution and the even worse scenario of being barred from public contracts in the United States or falling foul of European Union debarment regulations.
In October, reported that the board had hastened the departure of finance director Harald Wilhelm, prompting his surprise decision to resign even while acknowledging he had started the audit and halted the system of payments.
People familiar with the matter have said the clearout extends across the senior ranks of the company and, coupled with a wave of retirements, led to an unprecedented speed of change.
Others have been placed under pressure to leave, prompting arguments over who should take responsibility for the highly centralised system, multiple sources close to the case said.
Airbus said in February it had been asked to supply information to U.S. authorities about conduct at the centre of a UK and French probe into the use of middlemen in jetliner sales, potentially drawing the United States into the corruption case.
In a separate case, Airbus said in 2017 it had reported inaccuracies in filings to U.S. regulators under a part of U.S. arms exports controls governing the use of commissions.
People familiar with the case say progress has been slowed by French rules limiting the ability of foreign agencies to collect information or directly question French citizens.
Several sources said U.S. authorities had demonstrated frustration at the process and taken steps through sporadic questioning to remind Europe about their interest in the case.
Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Mike Stone
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