Now, after years of judicial proceedings and investigations by Thailand's anticorruption authorities, the Supreme Court here last month ruled that the deal, for the equivalent of about $183 million, was "massively overpriced." It sentenced two former senior Thai officials to prison terms for malfeasance and bid-rigging in the procurement of 315 fire trucks, 30 firefighting boats and other equipment bought from the General Dynamics business unit, then known as Steyr-Daimler-Puch Spezialfahrzeug.
Yet justice remains elusive, Thai officials say. Both convicted men, a former chief firefighter and a former deputy interior minister, have fled the country, according to the Thai news media.
Also absent on the day of the verdict — and during the trial — was Steyr, which was listed as a defendant but closed its office in Thailand in 2008 after the investigation started. The case against the company was suspended after it left the country.
(Read more: 'Ground zero' of Asian financial crisis seen sailing through)
In addition, Thai officials say, they were unable to conduct a credible investigation into the unspoken question in the case: Did bribery grease the deal? To do so, they say, they would have needed help from the Austrian government and General Dynamics, which they say they never got.
While the case dragged on, Bangkok decided it could not use its expensive new equipment because it feared that putting the trucks into service would legitimize the purchase and possibly affect the outcome of investigations.
The Austrian government did not respond to repeated requests for comment sent to the embassy in Bangkok. General Dynamics says it cooperated with the authorities but has declined to discuss the case in depth because it is in the middle of arbitration over a financial settlement with Bangkok.
In its decision last month, the Supreme Court said the deal that brought the trucks to Bangkok "originated" in 2003 with a letter from the Austrian ambassador to Thailand, on behalf of Steyr. The court ruled that the deal was falsely portrayed by Austrian and Thai officials as a government-to-government sale, in that way allowing Steyr to avoid a competitive bidding process. (The company has since changed its name to General Dynamics European Land Systems-Steyr.)
The National Anticorruption Commission in Thailand described Steyr as "liable" in the case because it "facilitated government officials in committing the offenses." The commission ordered the deal canceled in 2008 after completing an investigation.