NEWS ANALYSIS: The drama around Telenor’s involvement in alleged corruption at its partly owned Russian mobile phone VimpelCom is rife with politics. While a former Labour Party boss questions how a trade minister from the Conservative Party has handled the Telenor/VimpelCom case, two professors contend the Labour boss should withdraw from leading a parliamentary inquiry.
Martin Kolberg, the former national secretary of Norway’s Labour Party, now leads the Norwegian Parliament’s disciplinary committee. It decided earlier this week to hold a new hearing into who at Telenor knew what, and when, about concerns that VimpelCom had paid bribes to expand into Uzbekistan.
The new chief executive of Telenor, Sigve Brekke, is bound to be called in for questioning at the hearing, due to be held before Christmas. Brekke was formerly active in the Labour Party and its youth group AUF, rising to become a state secretary in the defense ministry in 1995-96 before he went off to study and do research at Harvard University in the US. He became head of Telenor’s operations in Asia in 2008.
That can cause a conflict of interest, claim two professors at both the University of Oslo (UiO) and the Norwegian Business School (BI), because Kolberg and Brekke have known each other and been Labour Party colleagues for years. “Good friends should not investigate each other, especially when one of them leads the control- and constitution committee at the Parliament and the other leads one of Norway’s largest companies,” wrote Professors Morten Kinander of BI and Geir Woxholth of UiO in Thursday’s issue of newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN).
Kolberg himself said in an interview in DN last spring that Brekke was “a close friend” and that their careers had paralleled each other’s. He noted that Brekke’s wife Torgrunn also worked for the Labour Party for many years.
Now Kolberg is downplaying his friendship with the Telenor CEO and disagrees that he has a conflict of interest. He called Brekke an “acquaintance” on Thursday and sees no reason to withdraw from the probe, even though he conceded the issue may come up at the committee’s next meeting.
Labour in power when bribes allegedly were paid
Meanwhile, Kolberg has stressed that the committee’s new hearing will mainly concentrate on how Trade Minister Monica Mæland of the Conservatives has handled the case since she assumed her post in 2013. Since the state still has a 54 percent stake in Telenor, formerly Norway’s state phone utility, the trade minister formally represents the government as Telenor’s single largest shareholder.
“We must chart the ministry’s work,” Kolberg told DN on Wednesday. Geir Pollestad, a Member of Parliament for the Center Party, also claimed it was “of the highest relevance to find out whether she (Mæland) has done enough to get all information on the table.”
The Center Party shared government power with Labour, though, in the former left-center coalition that also included the Socialist Left party (SV). The Labour-led coalition was in power from 2005 to 2013, with Kolberg’s party colleagues Odd Eriksen, Dag Terje Andersen, Sylvia Brustad and Trond Giske serving as as trade ministers while VimpelCom was expanding into Uzbekistan. Giske was in charge when the corruption allegations at VimpelCom, in which Telenor holds a 33 percent stake, first became known in 2012.
Labour has thus had arguably far more responsibility for developments at Telenor than the Conservatives, and the committee may need to call on some of Kolberg’s other former colleagues. Mæland, meanwhile, contends that she and her ministry colleagues have done “everything we could to gain and share information about this case. We have raised the questions we could. But it’s difficult to handle information we didn’t have and should have had.” She fired Telenor Chairman Svein Aaser, who’d been appointed by Giske, late last week after learning that he and former Telenor CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas had withheld information about the VimpelCom case. Aaser, a former CEO of Norway’s biggest bank, DNB, remains chairman of the National Museum, reporting to another government minister from the Conservatives, Thorhild Widvey.