Lunder still charged in VimpelCom case

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Mobile phone company VimpelCom’s admission on Wednesday that it violated corruption laws won’t have any effect on Jo Lunder, claims the defense attorney for the former “wonderboy” at Telenor who became chief executive of VimpelCom. Lunder remains charged for serious corruption, though, by Norwegian authorities.

Telenor dispatched Jo Lunder to Moscow around 15 years ago to oversee its stake in the Russian mobile phone firm VimpelCom. What followed was a lengthy legal power struggle with lawsuits on three continents until Telenor and VimpelCom's other partner, Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman came to terms. While Lunder was a board member, VimpelCom got involved in Uzbekistan, where US and European authorities now believe VimpelCom paid bribes. Lunder became VimpelCom's CEO in 2011 but quit this spring. PHOTO: VimpelCom

Telenor sent Jo Lunder to Moscow around 15 years ago to oversee its stake in the Russian mobile phone firm VimpelCom. What followed was a lengthy legal power struggle with lawsuits on three continents until Telenor and VimpelCom’s other partner, Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman, came to terms. While Lunder was a board member, VimpelCom got involved in Uzbekistan, where US and European authorities now believe VimpelCom paid bribes. Lunder became VimpelCom’s CEO in 2011 but quit last year. He has admitted he’d been warned about corruption at VimpelCom and even stopped some of its payments widely viewed as bribes, but later said he could no find no proof of corruption of himself.PHOTO: VimpelCom

Cato Schiøtz, the high-profile Norwegian attorney who’s defending Lunder, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Wednesday that it had been known “since before Christmas” that VimpelCom was negotiating a settlement of corruption charges against it with authorities in both the US and the Netherlands. The company is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and currently headquartered in Amsterdam, hence the involvement of the American and Dutch authorities including the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Lunder was arrested by Norwegian authorities in November, after an investigation into VimpelCom’s payments since 2006 to a Gibraltar company called Takilant, which has been tied to the daughter of Uzbekistan’s president. During that time, Lunder served on VimpelCom’s board and later became its CEO, while VimpelCom allegedly was paying bribes in order to do business in Uzbekistan.

Wednesday’s admission by VimpelCom that it had broken “certain” corruption laws “means null and nix” to Lunder, his defense attorney insisted. Schiøtz claims that during Lunder’s time as VimpelCom’s CEO, he did what he could to keep VimpelCom from getting involved in corruption. Lunder and Schiøtz have said he even halted payments made to Takilant because he thought they were suspicious.

Schiøtz confirmed that the charges against Lunder haven’t been withdrawn, “but there hasn’t been any new questioning either,” he told NRK. He said that the Norwegian investigators “can use the time they need” to determine whether they’ll move forward with seeking an indictment against Lunder.

Prosecutor Marianne Djupesland, who failed to keep Lunder jailed after his initial arest, told NRK she would wait to comment until VimpelCom’s “prospective settlement” with the authorities is approved and a fine levied. VimpelCom has set aside USD 900 million to cover costs and fines stemming from the VimpelCom corruption case against it.

‘Even more serious’ for Telenor and the state
The head of the Norwegian Parliament’s disciplinary committee, which has been holding hearings into Telenor’s involvement in the VimpelCom corruption case, told NRK that he thinks VimpelCom’s admission “makes the case even more serious” for Telenor, which still owns 33 percent of VimpelCom.

Martin Kolberg, a veteran politician for the Labour Party, said the admission indicates that the Parliament’s law stating it had zero tolerance for corruption clearly had been broken. Not only has Kolberg’s committee been grilling Telenor officials, but he said the admission “raises questions as to whether the (business and trade) ministry has followed up” on corruption concerns in an “orderly manner.”

Professor Beate Sjåfjell, a professor at the University of Oslo, told NRK that “what’s interesting here is what this will mean for Telenor, which has been so strongly involved in VimpelCom.” She also raised questions about the efficacy of the state’s so-called “active ownership” stakes in Norwegian companies, since so many of them have been hit with corruption charges, including Yara, Statoil and Kongsberg Gruppen.

Many other Norwegian companies have also had to deal with corruption lately, including most recently Jotun, Sevan Drilling and other Norwegian companies that have done business with Petrobras of Brazil, which is in the midst of a huge corruption scandal.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund