More trouble for Telenor, in Bulgaria

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Norway’s international telecoms firm Telenor has run into even more trouble at its overseas operations. This time the problems are in Bulgaria, where a police investigation is now underway into what the company calls “economic crime.”

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Friday that Telenor discovered shortly after buying its Bulgarian operation in 2013 that it had been paying for goods and services that were not delivered. At that time, the operation was called Globul, and had been purchased from OTE of Greece, which in turn was controlled by Deutsche Telekom of Germany.

‘Concrete suspicions’
Telenor, which is 54 percent-owned by the Norwegian state, paid EUR 717 million (around NOK 6.5 billion) for the Bulgarian mobile phone firm. Telenor  considered Globul a national extension of mobile phone companies it already owned in Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro.

Glenn Mandelid, a spokesman for Telenor, told DN that the company alerted local authorities after it developed “concrete suspicions of economic crime” in 2014 and 2015. Mandelid said the company “had a dialogue” with tax authorities in Bulgaria, also to conduct an audit and correct incorrect tax payments and deductions from the time prior to Telenor’s purchase.

When the local tax authorities opted against investigating, Telenor thought it was more natural for OTE to report the irregularities to police, because it, as previous owner, had suffered the losses. It wasn’t until 2016 that Telenor reported them itself, on the advice of Norwegian police.

“We were informed by Telenor about the situation in Bulgaria,” confirmed prosecutor Marianne Djupesland at Norway’s economic crimes unit Økokrim. “We put Telenor in touch with relevant police authorities (in Bulgaria).”

‘Intensive’ investigation
They are now “intensively” investigating the case, reported DN, which is the latest in a long string of trouble to hit Telenor’s international operations in India, Bangladesh, Thailand and, not least, through its involvement with VimpelCom in Uzbekistan. The latter case has dragged Telenor into a major corruption scandal that involved VimpelCom paying bribes to the daughter of Uzbekistan’s late dictator.

“Telenor is taking this case (in Bulgaria) very seriously,” Mandelid told DN. He stressed that no Telenor employees are involved in the case and that Telenor’s chief executive Sigve Brekke, who’s been under enormous pressure since assuming his post last year, has kept Telenor’s board leader Gunn Wærsted informed. Brekke and Wærsted have been at odds over a variety of issues, including trouble at the Asian operations he headed before becoming CEO. They called a ceasefire just before Christmas.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund