Bombardier Inc.’s former vice-president of rail control solutions was not and could not have been involved in paying or approving bribes to secure a contract in Azerbaijan, his defence lawyer told a court in Sweden on Tuesday.
Thomas Bimer “has not been aware of, or been involved in, the arrangement that the prosecutor claims have taken place,” said Tomas Nilsson, as the defence team presented its case in a district court in Stockholm.
Mr. Bimer, a Swede, is accused of aggravated bribery in connection with the 2013 contract won by Bombardier Transportation Sweden to install sophisticated signalling systems along the main railway line in Azerbaijan. The indictment says Bombardier and its local partner in the notoriously corrupt former Soviet country, Trans-Signal-Rabita LLC, and the government-owned Azerbaijan Railways (ADY), colluded to rig the specifications so the Bombardier-led consortium won the contract, worth US$340-million. An ADY official also represented Trans-Signal-Rabita.
For Trans-Signal-Rabita, the deal was worth US$100-million, which is also the size of the alleged bribe, prosecutors argue.
But Mr. Bimer denies those allegations, as do Bombardier and the Azeri official.
“Thomas Bimer was not authorized to approve deals on this level,” Mr. Nilsson told the court.
Mr. Bimer could only sign off on transactions up to €3-million (approximately US$3.5-million), his lawyer said. The bid involving Trans-Signal-Rabita was approved on the so-called group level, two levels up from Mr. Bimer, in Berlin, the defence said.
At the same time, Mr. Bimer was high enough in the hierarchy not to be informed of details of local partners, Mr. Nilsson said, explaining that a regional manager is in charge of operations in many countries. “It is obvious that Thomas Bimer couldn’t have had that detailed knowledge of the company’s operations,” Mr. Nilsson told the court.
He tried to distance his client from the crucial aspects of the indictment.
“Thomas Bimer has never had any contacts with anyone from Trans-Signal. Thomas Bimer has never had any contacts with anyone from ADY. Thomas Bimer has not had any knowledge of any employee at ADY also having interests in Trans-Signal. Thomas Bimer has never influenced anyone to approve Trans-Signal as a partner to Bombardier, and has never offered such a partnership”, Mr. Nilsson said.
His client, he said, had never even heard the name of the official who supposedly benefited inappropriately from the deal with Trans-Signal-Rabita. Mr. Bimer wasn’t involved in the due diligence of the company, either, and was not supposed to be, the court was told.
Since Mr. Bimer did not have such insights into the deal, it is not even possible that he could have paid a bribe, the defence team argued.
“This was a normal business agreement,” Mr. Nilsson said.
Having a local partner is often necessary, and is in no way “suspicious [or] unethical, and definitely not criminal,” the lawyer added.
The defence team did not, however, bring up another major aspect of the deal, the involvement of a murky middleman, British shell company Multiserv Overseas Ltd. Mr. Bimer signed the contract with the company, which was controlled by Bombardier’s Russian partners. Multiserv had no office, no phone number and no employees.
The company took a cut of US$86-million of the Azerbaijan deal, a 450-per-cent markup, when the signalling system was sold first from Bombardier in Sweden to Multiserv, then onward to Bombardier’s joint venture in Azerbaijan, without adding anything of substance to the operations.
It is not entirely clear why the defence team avoided the topic. Mr. Nilsson told The Globe and Mail he did not want to comment on the case Tuesday. He has previously pointed out the transactions with Multiserv are not part of the criminal charges against his client.
The prosecutors think those transactions are an important part of the deal, however. They argue the Russian partners behind Multiserv directed Bombardier to team up with Trans-Signal-Rabita. But chief prosecutor Staffan Edlund has said he doesn’t think he can charge anyone in Sweden for the mysterious payments.
The project was financed by a loan from the World Bank to the government of Azerbaijan that covered 85 per cent of the cost. In preliminary findings after an audit, the financial institution found the money to Multiserv was used to “funnel bribes.”
The World Bank has yet to announce its final conclusions and possible sanctions against Bombardier, which has denied the accusations. The U.S. Department of Justice is also investigating the Azerbaijan project.
“Thomas Bimer didn’t hear anything from the World Bank about any irregularities,” Mr. Nilsson told the court Tuesday.
The Globe reported last week that the Russian partners, according to the Swedish investigation, were approved already in 2010 by senior Bombardier management in Canada. The partners have since been involved in a number of deals in former Soviet countries.
Bombardier wouldn’t comment while the legal proceedings are continuing. Its lawyers also refrained from making any comments about the case.
The Azerbaijan deal has been tried in the Stockholm district court once before. A colleague of Mr. Bimer’s, former sales manager Evgeny Pavlov, was acquitted of bribery in 2017. A Russian national, Mr. Pavlov returned to his home country before the case came up in an appeals court in 2020. He didn’t show up.
Mr. Edlund argues the acquittal in that case was wrong. Mr. Bimer’s defence lawyers point out corruption allegations in the same deal have been dismissed already.
The charges against Mr. Bimer are the result of a five-year investigation by Sweden’s National Anti-Corruption Unit in one of the biggest corruption cases the country has seen.
If convicted, Mr. Bimer risks up to six years imprisonment. The trial is scheduled to continue until Nov. 24. A verdict is expected toward the end of this year or in early 2022.
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