PARIS - A long-awaited French corporate trial involving allegations of insider trading in the shares of Airbus Group got under way on Friday, marking the climax of an eight-year investigation.
Seven current and former managers at Europe's largest aerospace group, and two former industrial shareholders, are accused of trying to profit from inside knowledge of problems with two jet developments and a deteriorating financial outlook when they sold shares in what was then EADS in 2006.
All deny the charges and argue that the trial should not be taking place because they have already been cleared by the French stock market regulator, highlighting a growing European debate about “double jeopardy” rules.
However, a French court was expected to reject an attempt to have the trial halted on the grounds that it went against a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.
Current managers facing trial include John Leahy, the sales chief of planemaking subsidiary Airbus, who was not present on the opening day but is expected to give evidence next week.
Alain Flourens, who heads the planemaker's A380 program, and Andreas Sperl, formerly the Airbus finance director and now chief executive officer of a subsidiary that turns jetliners into cargo planes, are also facing trial.
Former managers on trial include Noel Forgeard, the former co-chief executive of EADS and once an adviser to former President Jacques Chirac.
“Not virtually cleared, totally cleared,” Forgeard, 67, said on his way into the court, correcting a journalist who asked about the 2009 ruling by the AMF stock market regulator.
French media group Lagardere and German car firm Daimler, which reduced their stakes in EADS shortly after the individual transactions, were also represented.
The three-week Paris trial will take place without a jury in front of a panel of judges in an ornate wood-paneled chamber best known as a place for auctioning off seized property or as the scene of previous high-profile corporate trials.
Legal experts say a verdict is likely to be given weeks or months after the trial closes and that the appeals process, in the case of convictions, can take years.
The trial will offer a rare glimpse of the inner workings and decision making of one of Europe's most strategic industrial companies and is expected to revive memories of Franco-German in-fighting and strategy disputes its leaders want to forget.
Airbus Group has reshaped itself in recent years by reducing the role of the French and German governments and is basking in record demand for its passenger jets, but has often been an unpredictable lightning rod for disputes outside the group.
As the trial got under way, Airbus Group Chief Executive Tom Enders wrote to its 100,000 employees, saying “I am confident, that once again, it will be demonstrated that these accusations are groundless and should be fully dismissed.”
Fabrice Bregier, the current head of Airbus, and Louis Gallois, a former boss of the planemaker as well as its parent group, will both appear as witnesses in coming weeks.
Prosecutors argue that executives knew the full extent of industrial problems on the A380 and the likelihood of a costly redesign of the A350 when they sold shares up to March 2006.
Similar accusations apply to the two industrial shareholders, which sold shares in April 2006.
The announcement of worsening delays on the A380 and a large profit warning wiped 26 percent from the EADS stock price on June 13, 2006, erasing 5.5 billion euros of market value.
The revelations triggered a crisis in industrial relations between France and Germany, where the largest Airbus factories are based, and a rapid swirl of management changes.
Defendants will argue that the full extent of delays and cost overruns on the A380, the world's largest passenger jet, was unknown at the time shares were sold, and that a breakdown in the installation of wiring only became apparent in May.
They will also argue that a full overhaul of the design of the A350, adopted in late 2006, was not the most likely scenario when they sold their stock earlier that year, as prosecutors claim. The completed A350 won safety approval this week.
If convicted, individual defendants face a fine up to 10 times the amount gained from the share deals and up to two years in prison, though jail terms are rare. The two companies standing on trial face a maximum fine of 50 times the profit they received from the share sales if they are found guilty.