Telenor’s chief executive officer and chairman didn’t offer any new public response to corruption allegations after a meeting with Norway’s government minister in charge of business and trade issues. Telenor is part of an international investigation into alleged bribery payments made by mobile phone firm VimpelCom, in which Telenor owns a 43 percent, but its top officials continue to claim ignorance.
VimpelCom has confirmed that it paid around USD 100 million into a Gibraltar company called Takilant, as part of the process for obtaining a license to do business in Uzbekistan. Investigators in five countries suspect that the payment amounted to a bribe to the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, who they believe controlled Takilant.
“The question is how much they (Telenor’s officials) knew” about the unusual payment, Berndt Berger, who’s investigating similar charges of corruption at the Swedish telecoms firm TeliaSonera, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). Its top officials have already resigned in connection with charges that TeliaSonera also made suspicious payments to the same Gibraltar company when it was breaking into the market in Uzbekistan. Berger has claimed that TeliaSonera and VimpelCom followed the same process when they applied for their licenses in Uzbekistan, known for being one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
“Their agreements were identical,” Berger told DN, adding that “exactly the same company” received the payments from both TeliaSonera and VimpelCom.
Berger, who stressed that’s he’s not involved in the investigations of VimpelCom and Telenor, nonetheless claims Telenor still bears responsibility for the operations of a company in which it has a major shareholding. At the very least, claim corruption experts, a demand for the equivalent of NOK 600 million to a company in Gibraltar should have set off some alarms or questions from the members of VimpelCom’s board, four of whom were Telenor veterans.
There were no new answers on the subject, however, following a meeting Wednesday between government minister Monica Mæland and Telenor officials. Telenor CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas and Telenor Chairman Svein Aaser continued to claim that there was “a big difference” between what VimpelCom did and what TeliasSonera did when they went into Uzbekistan, but when asked to explain the difference, Baksaas merely repeated that he couldn’t say. Baksaas and other top Telenor officials have also been questioned by police investigators.
Aaser, former chief executive of Norway’s biggest bank, DNB, claimed Telenor has itself been trying to find out what happened in regards to the Gibraltar payments. “Now it’s very important that these (investigators) in the Netherlands and other countries, are allowed to do their work in peace,” Aaser told reporters gathered outside Mæland’s office. “We have contributed as much as we can.”
Aaser said he believed Telenor “had done the job we should do. Whether it was good enough, is up for others to decide.”
Both of the Telenor officials also were summoned to a similar meeting with former trade minister Trond Giske two years ago, after DN first reported news of the ongoing corruption suspicions. Mæland claimed she was satisfied with the update Aaser and Baksaas provided on Wednesday but did not elaborate. She stressed, though, that she received only information that’s available to the market. Telenor has never answered questions about whether its representatives on VimpelCom’s board ever questioned or objected to the payments made to Takilant in Gibraltar.
‘Whole thing stinks’
While Aaser and Baksaas contend they’ve “done what they could” in the case, a senior adviser at DNB with responsibility for technology, media and telecommunications, bluntly sent out a comment on social media site Twitter that VimpelCom’s entry into Uzbekistan had followed “a classic recipe for corruption.”
Frank Maaø, who also formerly led DNB Markets’ analysis department, told DN that VimpelCom not only has confirmed the payments to the Gibraltar company but also has described how it entered into shareholder agreements that guaranteed gains and dividends to the company that obtained its licenses.
“This is a recipe for hiding what actually has happened,” Maaø told DN. “The whole thing stinks, that’s reasonably clear.” He stressed, though, that no one has been convicted yet.