TULSA — The former CEO of a Tulsa-based aircraft company pleaded guilty to participation in a scheme to bribe international officials.
Bernd Kowalewski, 57, the former CEO of BizJet International Sales and Support, pleaded guilty Thursday in Tulsa federal court to conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
He is the third and most senior executive of the company to plead guilty to bribery, according to a release from the U.S. Justice Department.
Former Vice President of Finance Neal Uhl and former Vice President of Sales Peter DuBois pleaded guilty in January 2012.
Prosecutors claim the company offered bribes to officials in Mexico and Panama to get contracts for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul services.
“While Kowalewski and his fellow executives referred to the corrupt payments as ‘commissions’ and ‘incentives,’ they were bribes, plain and simple,” Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell in the release.
The men paid the bribes directly to officials and also through a shell company, the agency said.
A shell company, Avionica International & Associates Inc., operated under the pretext of providing aircraft maintenance brokerage services. It really laundered money to the company’s bribery scheme, prosecutors said.
Bribes started out at about $3,000 to $5,000 and were paid to a director of maintenance or chief pilot, prosecutors said. The recipients were responsible for “decisions on where an aircraft went for maintenance work,” the Justice Department said. Later, the recipients demanded up $40,000 for “commissions,” the agency said.
In email correspondence, the three executives and others discussed the rise in demand, agreeing that the “commission” was an imperative part of the business, prosecutors said.
“We must remain competitive in this respect to maintain and gain market share,” Uhl wrote in an email.
The company entered into a prosecution agreement with the Justice Department in March 2012 and agreed to pay $11.8 million in penalties.
The case is ongoing, and is being investigated by the FBI’s Washington Field Office with assistance from Oklahoma’s field office.