Ex-Telenor chiefs grilled again

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Former leaders of Telenor and its partly owned subsidiary VimpelCom endured another round of grilling on Friday by the Norwegian Parliament’s disciplinary committee. Former Telenor CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas claimed he didn’t reveal everything he knew during a previous hearing, for fear he’d damage the international investigation that resulted in a huge corruption fine against VimpelCom, but committee members weren’t impressed.

Telenor's former chairman Svein Aaser (left) and CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas had more explaining to do on Friday over how they handled the corruption at Telenor's partly owned VimpelCom. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Telenor’s former chairman Svein Aaser (left) and CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas had more explaining to do on Friday over how they handled the corruption at Telenor’s partly owned VimpelCom. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Baksaas admitted he had not fully shared information about suspicions that VimpelCom paid bribes to expand into Uzbekistan, nor had Norway’s government minister in charge of business and trade been fully informed by either him or Telenor’s former chairman, Svein Aaser. Baksaas, who retired as Telenor’s longtime just before the corruption charges at its VimpelCom unit came to a head, and Aaser, who resigned when Trade Minister Monica Mæland lost confidence in him, sat side by side at the parliamentary committee’s latest lengthy hearing on Friday.

“From 2014 we were putting all our weight into cooperating with the police,” Baksaas said. He claimed it was important that Telenor executives not be accused of sharing confidential information that could damage the investigation going on in several countries.

In an interview with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), which had intially reported the suspicions of corruption at Telenor’s important mobile phone subsidiary, Baksaas had also admitted he knew more than he indicated he did during the previous hearing. That infuriated members of the committee, who are charged with making sure the trade minister is doing a good job of looking after the state’s investment in Telenor, which evolved from Norway’s former telephone utility and in which the state still holds a 54 percent stake.

Baksaas’ credibility ‘razor thin’
“That wasn’t good enough,” Abid Raja, a Member of Parliament and the committee for the Liberal Party, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) in referring to Baksaas’ new testimony on Friday. “Baksaas said the last time that he should put his confidentiality commitments aside and give us all the information. Now he says he had confidentiality commitments and therefore informed us incorrectly. His credibility is razor thin, if it even exists.”

Aaser, meanwhile, strongly opposed claims that he also withheld information about the corruption at VimpelCom. “I’ve been called a liar,” said Aaser, a former chief executive of Norway’s largest bank, DNB. “This is an entirely new situation in Norwegian politics. It’s a claim I strongly distance myself from.”

Martin Kolberg of the Labour Party, who leads the committee and has also been criticized by Norwegian business leaders for so vigorously pursuing the corruption case, said he now thinks Mæland of the Conservative Party did the best job she could under the circumstances. She was not properly informed (by the Telenor leaders) either, so can’t be blamed for subsequently giving wrong information to Parliament about the case, Kolberg reasoned in a live interview with NRK Friday evening.

‘Completely absurd’
Jo Lunder, the former Telenor executive who became VimpelCom’s CEO, was also grilled at the committee hearing on Friday. He was arrested last fall and remains charged with corruption himself by Norwegian authorities, something he called “completely absurd.” The former so-called “wonderboy” at Telenor testified that the charges have been a “catastrophe” for him, causing enormous damage to his career. “Today I have no job, I have no positions in business,” he said. He is vigorously fighting the charges and trying to clear his name.

MP and committee member Per Olaf Lundteigen asked Lunder to reveal the name of the whistleblower who first raised suspicions about corruption at VimpelCom. Lunder said he was willing to do so, but had to make sure that would not damage the investigation still going on. The whistleblower’s name was not made public.

“I believe that it is now documented (in a report compiled for Telenor by consulting and law firm Deloitte) that there are no Norwegians who have done anything criminal or worthy of criticism in the VimpelCom case,” Lunder said. “That comes through in the conclusions of both the American and the Dutch investigation.” Two former high-ranking Telenor executives who both had to resign as a result of the corruption case refused to appear at Friday’s hearing and were under no obligation to do so.

Committee leader Martin Kolberg, shown here being interviewed by NRK Friday evening, has been under severe pressure from Norwegian business leaders for pursuing the Telenor corruption case so vigorously. Kolberg responded that he would only back off if the Parliament rescinded its declaration of zero tolerance for corruption. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Committee leader Martin Kolberg, shown here being interviewed by NRK Friday evening, has been under severe pressure from Norwegian business leaders for pursuing the Telenor corruption case so vigorously. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

The hearing itself had been the target of harsh criticism, and some Norwegian business leaders were urging the Telenor executives, past and present, not to appear and subject themselves to questioning. Their criticism of the committee, and especially its leader Kolberg, began last weekend when the NHO employers’ organization boss Kristin Skogen Lund, a former Telenor executive herself, and Idar Kreutzer, head of Norway’s trade association for financial institutions, claimed that Kolberg was exceeding his authority by grilling the Telenor bosses. His job, they claimed, is only to make sure the trade minister is doing a good job, not how Telenor is conducting itself. They also claimed Kolberg was undermining confidence in the company and its value as a state-owned company.

Several other leading business executives and veterans joined the charge, which led to Kolberg fighting back even harder. He noted that if the committee had not questioned and challenged the Telenor leaders, it might never have emerged that they had misinformed the trade minister. That would have left her being wrongly criticized by the committee for failing to correctly inform Parliament.

“There is only one thing that would get me to set the Telenor case aside, and that’s if the Parliament decided to no longer support its declaration of zero tolerance for corruption,” Kolberg told newspaper Dagsavisen earlier this week.

Koberg, his committee and Trade Minister Mæland aren’t the only ones upset that Telenor leaders didn’t fully inform them. Another major investor in Telenor, the KLP funds, complained at Telenor’s annual shareholders’ meeting earlier this month that it, too, was misinformed by both Telenor’s board and its management. “We have actively followed Telenor the past eight years,” said KLP Kapitalforvaltning’s CEO Håvard Gulbrandsen at the meeting. “Unfortunately neither the board nor the management has handled this well enough.”

Representatives for Telenor employees, meanwhile, contended in a commentary printed in DN on Thursday that Telenor employees “are neither corrupt nor do they contribute to corruption. We work everyday amidst hard competition to secure Norwegian jobs that the employees are proud of.” The employees claimed that the media coverage of the corruption at Telenor’s partly owned VimpelCom subsidiary and the manner in which Kolberg had handled his committee’s investigation “hurt and worried several thousand employees who are proud of their workplace,” and that all the criticism of Telenor “subjects Telenor employees to confrontations from a headline-reading public in many situations, also in the private sphere.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund