Receiving money to "offset" buying planes and equipment did not necessarily constitute bribery, Malaysia's prime minister said Thursday, days after AirAsia boss Tony Fernandes stepped aside temporarily in the wake of a $4 billion Airbus graft scandal.
AirAsia founder and CEO Fernandes and company executive chairman Kamarudin Meranun deny allegations of misconduct, but have stepped aside after Airbus last week settled a court case in Europe which alleged the planemaker paid bribes to win contracts.
Airbus agreed to pay $4 billion in fines to regulators to settle the case, but the scandal was further illuminated by Britain's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) releasing the names of several airlines allegedly involved -- including AirAsia and its long-haul unit AirAsia X.
AirAsia said Fernandes and Kamarudin would step aside temporarily while the issue is investigated further.
Asked about the case, Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said he was not in a position to make any decision about it, but added: "Usually when the government purchases anything, we always ask for an 'offset'".
"If we get something for buying at a high price tag, why shouldn’t we accept it?" he said at a press conference.
"If the money that we receive goes into our pocket, then that is bribery. But if the money is for a specific reason, it is an 'offset', not bribery."
A French court last week said Airbus had agreed to pay 3.6 billion euros ($4 billion) in fines to Britain, France and the United States to settle corruption inquiries sparked by suspicious sales.
Court documents on the British SFO website said EADS France SAS -- which was later renamed Airbus Group SAS -- paid $50 million as sponsorship for a sports team owned by two unnamed AirAsia executives.
"Key decision-makers" in AirAsia and AirAsia X allegedly rewarded the firm with an order of 180 aircraft from Airbus, it said
AirAsia is Airbus's biggest customer, but Fernandes and Kamarudin have denied their former Formula One team was involved in any bribery scandal.