By Emmanuel Samarathisa

ALL eyes are on AirAsia group founders Tan Sri Tony Fernandes and Datuk Kamarudin Meranun.

Both men are not only controlling shareholders of AirAsia Group Bhd (AAGB) and AirAsia X Bhd (AAX), but important fixtures in the company – they are the founders.

But the duo had to relinquish their executive posts on Feb 3 for two months to make way for investigations by Malaysian enforcement and regulatory agencies after Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) found fraudulent business dealings between European planemaker Airbus SE and AAGB and AAX.

The agency found that Airbus had bribed executives of AAGB and AAX RM205 mil, paid in sponsorship to a sports team jointly owned by the duo as a reward for an order of 135 planes.

These were among the details Airbus divulged to authorities as part of a US$4 bil settlement.

While these executives were not named, Fernandes and Kamarudin had been implicated due to their past ownership of the now-defunct Caterham Formula One team. The two men have maintained their innocence.

But, this is not the businessmen’s first brush with controversy. Below is a list of past grievances:

  1. RM13.23 mil in alleged kickbacks from Rolls-Royce

The Financial Times in January 2017 reported that an AAGB executive received a US$3.2 mil (RM13.23 mil) bribe by Rolls-Royce Holdings in the form of a discount for the maintenance of a private jet part-owned by Fernandes.

SFO charged Rolls-Royce with failing to stop staff from paying a credit “despite those employees believing that, in consequence, the AAG executive intended to perform a relevant function properly.”

This discount was given at the request of the AAGB executive in return for his “showing favour” towards Rolls-Royce in the purchase of products and services, said the SFO.

According to the FT, the US$3.2 mil credits were provided for a Bombardier Global Xpress business jet owned by Tune Group Sdn Bhd, the holding company set up by Fernandes and Kamarudin.

Rolls-Royce disclosed these as part of a £671 mil settlement where the engineering firm admitted a string of bribery and corruption offences that go as far back as 1994, involving a dozen countries.

AAGB refuted Rolls-Royce’s admission. “AirAsia has had no dealings or transactions with Rolls-Royce and has no knowledge of any matter mentioned in the article,” the group said in a Jan 23, 2017, filing with Bursa Malaysia.

  1. RM3.64 mil settlement for insider trading

On Aug 9, 2011, Malaysian Airline System Bhd (MAS), AirAsia Bhd and AirAsia X Bhd (AAX) entered into a comprehensive collaboration framework.

The agreement, among others, involved Khazanah Nasional Bhd and Tune Air Sdn Bhd in a share swap agreement that resulted in a cross-holding of shares and Tune Air obtaining a 20.5% stake in MAS and Khazanah getting 10% in AirAsia.

Also on the cards were MAS becoming a full-service premium airline while AirAsia and AAX would be regional low-cost and medium-to-long-haul low-cost carriers, respectively. The deal was aborted eight months later following public outcry.

But, Securities Commission Malaysia charged a number of individuals for insider trading. Kamarudin was among them.

He entered into a settlement on April 2 last year with SC for RM3.64 mil for insider trading of MAS shares in August 2011.

Kamarudin, who had a 32.18% stake, is a controlling shareholder of AirAsia through his investment vehicle Tune Live Sdn Bhd and Tune Air Sdn Bhd.

Kamarudin agreed without admission or denial of liability to settle a claim that the SC was proposing to institute against him for buying 5.66 million MAS shares between Aug 1 and 5, 2011.

  1. RM224.8 mil settlement for breaching football rules

Fernandes took over British football team Queens Park Rangers (QPR) in 2011 with Kamarudin and Datuk Ruben Gnanalingam of Westports Holdings Bhd.

But the trio would encounter financial headwinds as QPR had to cough out a £42 mil (RM224.8 mil) settlement for breaching Financial Fair Play rules after the football club was found to break spending limits for the 2013/14 season, upon promotion to the Premier League.

A breakdown of the settlement includes: paying the league £17 mil for the fair play breach and £3 mil for the league’s legal costs, and a payment schedule that Press Association Sport understands to be 10 years had been agreed.

The balance of the original fine, £21.96 mil, would be borne by QPR’s owners who had to convert outstanding loans to the club into shares.

After paying the fine, Fernandes and Gnanalingam would step down with Amit Bhatia, a business acquaintance, moving up from his role as vice-chairman.

  1. Alleged RM12.6 mil fraud  in India

Fernandes, AAGB acting CEO Tharumalingam Kanagalingam (also known as Bo Lingam) and certain people linked to AirAsia India were summoned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on Jan 20.

This was part of investigations into AirAsia India for allegedly lobbying the Indian government to secure overseas flight permits and violating rules that bar foreign airlines from controlling Indian carriers.

According to news publication Mint in a Jan 20 report, ED summoned Fernandes and senior officials of AirAsia India under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). But Fernandes did not show up for questioning on Jan 20.

ED is also probing irregularities of funds as well as criminal misconduct against AirAsia India when it was lobbying for a licence to start services in India.

The ED’s charge against Fernandes, according to Mint, comes on the heels of a years-long investigation by the ED and the Central Bureau of Investigation which began in May 2018.

According to The Edge, citing Indian media reports, enforcement agents began probing into the affair after businessman Cyrus Mistry alleged that fraudulent transactions of 220 million rupees (RM12.6 mil), involving non-existent entities in India and Singapore, were carried out in an instance involving AAGB.

But AAGB refuted the allegations in a June 2018 statement, calling them “baseless, unsupported and unjustified.” – Feb 8, 2020

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