Thommessen’s tax haven tangle

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UPDATED: The Chief Minister of Guernsey said he’d contact the President of Norway’s Parliament (Stortinget), Olemic Thommessen, after Thommessen went public with his 10-year private battle to access a trust on the Channel Island. It’s highly unusual, and potentially scandalous, for a top Norwegian politician to be involved with a trust in a so-called tax haven, but Thommessen has been talking with Oslo newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) and media on Guernsey because he’s so critical of the British legal rules that cover the Crown dependency. He also reportedly has no financial stake in the trust himself.

The President of the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget), Olemic Thommessen of the Conservative (Høyre) party, went public over the weekend about his decade-long battle to access a trust on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. He set up the trust 27 years ago for his cousin, but realized PHOTO: Stortinget/Terje Heiestad

The President of the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget), Olemic Thommessen of the Conservative (Høyre) party, went public over the weekend about his decade-long battle to access a trust on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. He set up the trust 27 years ago for a distant cousin, but suspected collusion between the accountants and trust managers. He is still fighting for a police investigation into the case. PHOTO: Stortinget/Terje Heiestad

Thommessen said he’d even hired a private detective and a white collar crime expert to help him get control of the trust he helped set up on behalf of a distant relative, who was the illegitimate great-granddaughter of the Norwegian literary icon and politician Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Among other works, Bjørnson wrote the lyrics for Norway’s national anthem.

Guernsey is a popular offshore finance hub because of its light tax and death duties. DN reported that in 1987, while still working as a lawyer in Oppland County, Thommessen set up a trust on Guernsey for his relative in London, the world-renowned stage designer Maria Bjørnson. Thommessen was the trustee for the inheritance Bjørnson received from her father, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s grandson, but the majority of her NOK 200 million (USD 33.5 million) fortune came from her success with stage productions including Phantom of the Opera.

Bjørnson, who had no heirs, was found dead in her bathtub in 2002, believed to have drowned during an epileptic seizure. Two years later Thommessen began litigation against wealth managers at Butterfield Trust, arguing they had abused Bjørnson’s trust and mismanaged the funds. After a 10-year fight for access, control and transfer of the funds from the trust Thommessen himself had set up, soaring legal costs forced him to agree to a settlement. A large amount of the wealth was to be transferred to a new charitable culture foundation in Norway.

Fraud expert and private eye
During the battle to cut through Guernsey’s strictly controlled legal and finance system, Thommessen sought help not just from Norwegian politicians and ministries, including Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre at the time, but also British fraud investigators, finance experts and a private investigator. He suspected the links between the trust managers and island authorities were too close.

A specialist researcher formerly employed by Britain’s economic crime police, Mark Ballamy, wrote a report based on all the accounting documents left in Bjørnson’s home after her death. They raised questions about both her accountants and the trust manager on Guernsey, prompting Thommessen to tell DN that “I think Maria was a suitable victim for them since she was so busy with her artistic work and didn’t have any business skills.”

Further investigations
Thommessen referred the case to the Guernsey Border Agency with Ballamy’s report of alleged financial irregularities, but the authorities said there was insufficient evidence. Thommessen believed the case had been stopped by parties with a vested interest, but could not convince police, finance inspectors or other authorities on the island to take up the case.

A British accounting association launched an investigation however, because three of those involved were members of its group. In 2012 the accountants, a father and daughter, admitted wrongdoing and were fined NOK 100,000 and NOK 50,000 respectively, plus costs. The trustee initially denied but later made admissions to a disciplinary tribunal that last year concluded the trustee had broken the association’s professional ethics and fined him about NOK 120,000, but granted his request for anonymity so as not to affect his job in the small community.

Despite having founded the trust, not even Thommessen was allowed to learn the man’s identity. “The whole English legal system is packed in all sorts of firewalls, where discretion and anonymity make it almost impossible to get access to cases yourself that directly concern you,” he said. “For me as a politician this is uncomfortable, because my starting point is that I should be open in all contexts.”

Questionable role for Thommessen, too
Thommessen’s role as a top politician in Norway, where as president of the parliament he has a higher rank than the prime minister, also raises questions about his involvement with an overseas trust in a tax haven in Guernsey. Norway is a high-tax country that has been cracking down on private fortunes hidden in tax havens. Asked whether he had any second thoughts about helping set up Bjørnson’s trust, he told DN “no, not as long as it was legal in England for her to do so. There wasn’t the same degree of attention to or knowledge of the problems tied to such a tax paradise at the time.” He admitted, though, that the trust was set up in a “tax paradise” because of tax considerations “but also because she (Bjørnson) wasn’t sure where she was going to settle at the time.”

When Thommessen ran into problems over control of the trust, he also contacted both Norway’s foreign minister Støre and the finance ministry for help. Støre told DN he had a “vague recollection” of the call from Thommessen, who mostly wanted top contacts at the Red Cross where Støre had been head of its Norwegian operations. The Red Cross was a potential beneficiary of the trust but didn’t want to help Thommessen fight its managers. Norway’s finance ministry didn’t want to help Thommessen either, DN reported.

Asked how the ministry’s state secretary from the Socialist Left party (SV) at the time reacted to Thommessen’s call for help, Roger Schjerva said it would have been wrong in principle for the ministry to assist in such a private case. Thommessen argued that a cultural institution in Norway could benefit from the trust’s proceeds, but Schjerva wasn’t convinced.

“I didn’t sit there and condemn (the trust in a tax haven),” Schjerva told DN. “I assumed he set it up to help a relative save on taxes. Many wealthy people do that. But they also should probably realize that they can risk losing the whole fortune.” Thommessen reportedly had no financial stake in the trust himself, apart from attempts to cover his legal fees.

Chief Minister to make contact
After working with his counterparts in the British parliament, Thommessen again demanded information from the director of the trust bank. He was sent a “strictly private and confidential” email, saying he could be told the names of those involved if he promised to keep it secret. “Then I was furious,” Thommessen told DN. He wrote back, reminding the bank a parliamentary president had to be open in his communications, and he was an official complainant. He got no further response, despite apparently flaunting his role as top politician in Norway.

“This 10-year long process has convinced me about how wrong the British legal system is,” said Thommessen. “When you try to penetrate a case, it’s closed for access, and if you try to break the barrier it can cost you years and great amounts to fight against people who claim you’re breaking discretion.” He demanded the police resume the investigation based on the disciplinary tribunal’s ruling.

Meanwhile, Guernsey’s Chief Minister Jonathan Le Tocq commented on the case on Monday. “I have not been contacted by Olemic Thommessen personally, but I have seen the comments he has given to the press on Guernsey,” he told DN, through his media adviser Emma Titterington. “I am aware that the authorities on Guernsey have historically conducted investigations in association with such questions. I will make contact with Thommessen to get first hand knowledge of what his complaint is, so that I can answer him.”

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate and Nina Berglund