Swissair's last chief executive before the airline went bankrupt in 2001, Mario Corti, on Tuesday denied having lied to shareholders about the health of the airline.This content was published on January 23, 2007 - 22:06
On his second day in court, Corti continued his strong line of defence but also used the occasion to take swipes at ex-Crossair boss Moritz Suter and UBS Bank chairman Marcel Ospel.
Corti, 61, is one of 19 former top executives and board members on trial over the collapse of the former national carrier.
The former Swissair head, who is facing charges which include making false statements about the dire financial situation of Swissair, denied having lied intentionally to SAirGroup shareholders during the annual general meeting on April 25, 2001.
At the time, Corti announced that three financial institutions – Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and Citigroup – had agreed to provide a SFr1-billion credit line and that Swissair's finances were therefore safe. In reality it was only a proposal with lots of strings attached.
"The offer made by the three banks was legally restrictive," claimed Corti, adding that he was unaware of the precise details. Georges Schorderet, Swissair's chief financial officer, had been the main negotiator with the banks.
According to Corti, the banks had agreed to make a public statement and Corti had asked Schorderet to deal with the matter.
"Georges Schorderet gave me his green light," said Corti, who "had not seen the written reply from the banks".
"I had thousands of things to organise before that meeting," explained Corti. This was also why he was unable to talk to his finance officer about what he was going to tell the shareholders.
Corti acknowledged that he had wanted to "reassure" the shareholders in what was a period of crisis.
"It was my duty to show that Swissair was not at the end of its tether. I assume full responsibility for what I did. Georges Schorderet was not involved," he added.
Corti also used his testimony to settle a number of old scores.
He explained that he had spoken with UBS chairman Marcel Ospel to request the bank's support before Corti took over from Eric Honegger as SAirGroup chief in March 2001.
After mulling it over for a day, Corti said Ospel set three conditions, including Schorderet's dismissal. But once Corti took over the reins, UBS decided not to lend any support.
Corti also described how in January 2001 former chairman Eric Honegger's decision to sack Philippe Bruggisser, the head of the SAirGroup, had only "made things worse".
Presented as a fait accompli, "the board members didn't want to go against Honegger" he explained.
To round things off, Corti also blasted Moritz Suter, the founder of Crossair, for having thrown in the towel only one-and-a-half months after taking over the group's airline activities.
"Today we know that Suter gave up his mandate at the request of his lawyer Peter Böckli," he declared.
Georges Schorderet, chief financial officer of the SAirGroup from September 1995 to May 2001, was also in court on Tuesday, and continued to refuse to answer any questions while proclaiming his innocence.
swissinfo with agencies
Swissair planes were grounded in October 2001, after the company had been in business for 71 years.
The downturn in the aviation market after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, proved the last straw for the heavily indebted Swissair, which folded the following year.
The airline collapsed after buying stakes in numerous loss-making airlines, including Belgium's Sabena and Poland's Lot, in an attempt to form its own airline alliance.
Swissair left behind debts to the tune of SFr17 billion ($13.7 billion) and resulted in 5,000 job losses.
The remains of Swissair and the regional carrier Crossair were brought together in 2002 to form the new national carrier Swiss, which was in turn taken over by Germany's Lufthansa in 2005.
The trial opened on January 16 and should run until March 9 at Bülach district court near Zurich.
There are 19 defendants, including 16 former members of the Swissair board and the company's top management.
The investigation took five years and produced 280 metres worth of documents.
The prosecution's indictment runs to 100 pages.
All nine defendants who have so far appeared have proclaimed their innocence.
Apart from Corti and Thomas Schmidheiny, all the others refused to answer the prosecution's questions on grounds that it could prejudice parallel civil proceedings brought by former employees and shareholders seeking hundreds of millions of francs in compensation.
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