Svein Aaser resigned under fire on Friday as chairman of state-controlled telecoms firm Telenor, after Trade Minister Monica Mæland expressed a lack of confidence in him. Mæland and other state politicians are upset over how Aaser has dealt with an ongoing corruption investigation of mobile phone firm VimpelCom, in which Telenor has long held a major stake.
Telenor issued a statement Friday that Aaser had resigned with immediate effect. Aaser stated that there had “been disagreement between myself as chairman and the ministry around the handling of the VimpelCom case. I have informed Trade Minister Monica Mæland of my decision to resign.”
Mæland responded by telling newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that “I no longer have confidence in Telenor’s chairman. I have expressed that I no longer had confidence, and then he made his conclusion.”
Aaser, a former chief executive of state-controlled bank DNB, had been chairman of Telenor since 2012, when he was appointed to the post by the trade minister from the former Labour-led government at the time, Trond Giske. The state owns nearly 54 percent of Telenor’s shares.
Details remained sketchy but Aaser’s abrupt departure is related to the ongoing investigation into suspected corruption at VimpelCom, in which Telenor owns a 33 percent stake. VimpelCom, majority owned by Russian tycoon Mikhail Fridman, is supected of paying bribes to a company controlled by the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator when VimpelCom was seeking mobile phone licenses to expand in the country.
The investigation is going on in several countries and Mæland told DN she received information about the case from Telenor that she claims not only she but the Parliament’s disciplinary committee should have had much earlier. She said she regretted that she couldn’t reveal the nature of the information because of fears it would damage the investigation of VimpelCom, but that it is tied to Aaser’s handling of the case.
Asked whether it was the earlier withholding of the information, or the information itself that was most problematic, Mæland responded “both.” She confirmed to news service E24 that she also has been in contact with the Norwegian police’s economic crimes unit Økokrim.
Ongoing static for Telenor
The VimpelCom corruption case has become a major problem for Telenor, which hasn’t been charged itself but is having increasing difficulty distancing itself from the suspicions of bribery and money laundering. Telenor’s board recently decided to sell off its stock in VimpelCom but can’t do so while the investigation proceeds. Telenor reported earlier this week that it had written down its investment in VimpelCom, at a heavy loss.
Telenor’s communications director, Severin Roald, confirmed that Telenor officials had a meeting with Mæland last week, at which Aaser was present. Mæland told DN she has since studied the new information she received in depth.
“This was relevant information which I should have had, and which the Parliament’s control- and constitutional committee should have had earlier,” she told DN. “I think this is serious.”