Parliament sets Telenor inquiry

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The Norwegian Parliament’s supervisory committee plans to grill three current and former government trade ministers and no less than 14 people who have served in top positions at state-controlled Telenor. They’ve all been summoned to a hearing just before the Christmas recess, with politicians probing how they handled corruption suspicions that already have sullied Telenor’s reputation.

Martin Kolberg, a Labour Party veteran who heads the parliament's supervisory committee, has been furious that Telenor officials earlier withheld information about how they handled the corruption allegations around Telenor's partly owned VimpelCom Ltd. Now he and his fellow committee members are holding another hearing, and have summoned 14 current and former Telenor officials for questioning, along with three current and former trade ministers. The government is Telenor's biggest shareholder with a 54 percent stake, which is why the committee has become involved. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Martin Kolberg, a Labour Party veteran who heads the parliament’s supervisory committee, has been furious that Telenor officials earlier withheld information about how they handled corruption allegations around Telenor’s partly owned VimpelCom Ltd. Now Kolberg and his fellow committee members are holding another hearing, and have summoned 14 current and former Telenor officials for questioning, along with three current and former trade ministers. The government is Telenor’s biggest shareholder with a 54 percent stake, which is why the committee has become involved. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Both the current and former chief executive officers of Telenor, the company’s recently fired chairman and his predecessor (who also was fired, but in another matter) have been called in by the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Scrutiny and Constitutional Affairs. Ten more current and former Telenor executives who’ve been involved over the years with Telenor’s partly owned mobile phone company VimpelCom Ltd have also been asked to explain themselves. The now-Russian-controlled VimpelCom is under investigation in four countries for allegedly playing bribes to win mobile phone licenses in Uzbekistan, a country known for being among the most corrupt in the world.

The parliamentary committe has also summoned not only Norway’s current government minister in charge of business and trade issues, Monica Mæland of the Conservative Party, but also her two predecessors from the Labour Party. Labour veterans Trond Giske, now a Member of Parliament, and Sylvia Brustad served as trade ministers during the former left-center and Labour-led government, and Giske had run-ins of his own with the bosses at Telenor. As trade minister, Mæland, Giske and Brustad have all been ultimately responsible for overseeing the state’s investment in Norwegian companies. In the case of Telenor, which evolved from the former state-run telephone utility in Norway, the state still holds a 54 percent stake.

Now Telenor is caught in an ever-growing pile of allegations that VimpelCom paid bribes and Telenor executives ignored warnings regarding highly questionable transactions tied to the company’s expansion into Uzbekistan. There was a lot of money at stake and potential profits to be made. Even though Telenor had at least three representatives on VimpelCom’s board since 2007, charged with corporate governance, VimpelCom ultimately went ahead and paid out more than USD 100 million to a company registered in the tax haven of Gibraltar called Takilant, that’s been tied to the then-powerful daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator.

Committee wants some answers
Norway’s parliamentary committee therefore has some questions not only for Telenor’s top executives and chairmen at the time but also for Telenor’s former representatives on VimpelCom’s board. They include Arve Johansen, Henrik Torgersen, Fritjof Rusten, Kjell Morten Johnsen, Jan Edvard Thygesen, Ole Bjørn Sjulstad and Trond Westlie. All served in various periods from 2007 until this year.

Also called in is Jo Lunder, the former young Telenor star who was involved in Telenor’s VimpelCom investment from the start, in 1998. He was arrested earlier this month and is the only one formally charged with corruption so far. Telenor’s former CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas and recently fired chairman Svein Aaser have also been called in, along with suspended chief financial officer Richard Olav Aa. They were also questioned at an earlier committee hearing in January, and have since been accused of only selectively sharing information.

Telenor’s former chairman, the former Statoil CEO Harald Norvik, is also on the committee’s list of 17 people called in to the hearing. The only woman among them is Liselott Kilaas, who was the leader of Telenor’s ethics committee in 2011 when VimpelCom, then under Lunder’s leadership as CEO, made a questionable payment of USD 30 million to Takilant, the company linked to Uzbekistan’s ruling family.

Those summoned who are tied to Telenor can refuse to appear at the hearing, but committee leader Martin Kolberg of the Labour Party made it clear he expects them to show up and respond truthfully and fully to questions this time. “It’s difficult for me to believe that such central members of society would choose not to come and explain themselves,” Kolberg told news bureau NTB. The hearing is set for December 16.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund