Corruption net tightens around Telenor

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Top state politicians appear intent on holding Telenor accountable for the corruption that’s been admitted to have occurred at its partly owned mobile phone firm VimpelCom. Telenor’s new board leader was summoned for a meeting with Trade Minister Monica Mæland this week, while the parliament’s disciplinary committee received a legal green light to call in past and present Telenor executives for another grilling.

“We haven’t come to the bottom of this case,” Mæland told reporters after her meeting Wednesday evening with Gunn Wærsted, who took over as leader of Telenor’s board late last year. Mæland, formally responsible for the state’s 54-percent ownership stake in Telenor, appointed Wærsted after firing Telenor’s former chairman for allegedly withholding information about the corruption scandal.

Pressure rising
Mæland is under pressure to deal not only with the corruption case involving Telenor but now also with questions swirling around other major Norwegian companies in which the state has large ownership interests. Hydro, Statoil and Kongsberg Gruppen are all under a shadow at present, not long after former Yara International executives were sentenced to jail and the company itself settled a corruption probe around its overseas operations and agreed to pay a huge fine. The cases have almost invariably involved alleged bribery payments to powerful players in countries like Uzbekistan (Telenor), Tajikistan (Hydro), Angola (Statoil), Libya (Yara) and Romania (Kongsberg), and they mesh badly with the Norwegian government’s and the companies’ own claims that they have “zero tolerance” for corruption.

The admissions and settlement that VimpelCom has made with authorities in the US and the Netherlands “doesn’t tell us much more about how Telenor handled the case, and that’s what’s important for us,” Mæland told news bureau NTB after her meeting with Wærsted. Nor did Mæland get much more information from Wærsted, but both claimed to be anxiously awaiting the results of an external probe ordered by Telenor. It’s meant to examine how Telenor monitored its investment in VimpelCom, and explore how bribery payements were made even though Telenor had representatives on VimpelCom’s board and had one of its own top executives (Jo Lunder) as CEO until last year. Lunder has been charged in the case by Norway’s white collar crime unit Økokrim.

Lunder’s attorney has been quick to claim that the VimpelCom settlement agreement clears his client, while Lunder himself suggested to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week that VimpelCom’s internal controls were consciously “avoided, manipulated and not followed by some of its own leading employees.” He pointed to the US authorities’ determination that “leading people” within the VimpelCom system tried to hide the bribery payments made to the daughter of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian head of state, and misled VimpelCom board members and attorneys. Lunder remains charged himself, though, and under investigation.

New parliamentary hearing(s) expected
Now he’s likely to also be among those called in to another parliamentary hearing along with former Telenor CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas, its current CEO Sigve Brekke, and others, including Mæland herself and her predecessors from earlier Labour Party-led governments. Not only are questions flying around the people running Telenor, but also around the government officials responsible for the state’s investment in Telenor. That will include other top politicians like Trond Giske of the Labour Party, who was trade minister when the bribery payments were being made by VimpelCom. Both Wærsted and Brekke of Telenor have publicly stated that Telenor “could have done more” to better control VimpelCom. Mæland, the current trade minister from the Conservative Party, has also said that state anti-corruption control could have been better.

Martin Kolberg, head of the parliament’s disciplinary committee, has been cleared by state prosecutor Tor-Aksel Busch to hold a new hearing on the Telenor/VimpelCom case, since it no longer would present any risk of foiling the US and Dutch authorities’ own investigation of VimpelCom. Kolberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the committee would likely decide at a meeting next week to schedule a public hearing on Telenor soon. The committee is also expected, in another case, to question Hydro over its business in Tajikistan.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund