A court in Oslo refused to go along Friday with a prosecutor’s request to keep former Telenor “wonderboy” Jo Lunder in custody. The court found no firm reason to suspect Lunder of the corruption with which he’s been charged, but he’ll still have to spend the weekend in jail since the prosecution immediately appealed.
It was nonetheless a victory of sorts for Lunder, whose prominent Norwegian defense attorney Cato Schiøtz said it was “seldom” that the court didn’t grant prosecutors’ custody requests. Lunder remains charged, though, and in jail pending the prosecutors’ appeal in connection with multi-million-dollar payments made by Telenor’s partly owned Russian mobile phone firm VimpelCom. Prosecutors suspect the payments were bribes.
Schiøtz had confirmed earlier that the charges against Lunder involve payments made by VimpelCom in 2011, when Lunder was VimpelCom’s chief executive after having served on the company’s board for several years. VimpelCom reportedly made payments amounting to USD 30 million into bank accounts held by Takilant, a Gibraltar-registered company believed to be controlled by the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator.
Schiøtz said on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s live radio news program Dagsnytt 18 that Lunder had intended to object to efforts to keep him in jail when his custody hearing came up Friday afternoon. The hearing was held behind closed doors but Schiøtz said Lunder could produce emails showing that he initially stopped the first payment to Takilant when he discovered it.
“He asked for a thorough evaluation of the reason for the payments,” Schiøtz told NRK after the hearing. “When he had received answers from among others an American accountant, he had no reason to stop the payments.” The money was said to be payment for consultancy services rendered.
Schiøtz repeated that his client contends he’s not guilty of the corruption charges against him nor has he contributed towards corruption. In an email sent to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) earlier this week, Lunder wrote that he already had passed on “everything I know” about the VimpelCom case to the appropriate authorities.
Put on leave
Earlier on Friday, Lunder was put on leave by his new employer, shipping magnate John Fredriksen, pending the results of the VimpelCom investigation. DN reported Friday that the corruption charges against Lunder may cost him the new job that he assumed for Fredriksen last summer, just a few months after he resigned from VimpelCom.
Lunder also resigned Friday as a member of the board of the oil rig company North Atlantic Drilling, which Fredriksen controls. He had been elected to the board of the company in September, replacing Fredriksen himself.
Lunder, who has stayed silent since the corruption allegations against VimpelCom first emerged three years ago, had been involved in Telenor’s troubled investment in VimpelCom from the very start, when Telenor bought the nearly bankrupt firm in 1998. Lunder was credited with building the company up into Telenor’s biggest international venture, and then trying to secure Telenor’s investment in VimpelCom after Russian oligarch Mikail Fridman’s Alfa Gruppen bought into the company. Telenor and Alfa landed in a huge legal conflict over ownership rights and Telenor’s stake in the company ultimately shrunk to the 33 percent it holds today. Telenor is now trying to sell off its stake, but is unable to do so pending results of the corruption investigation. Lunder resigned as VimpelCom’s CEO last spring.
VimpelCom announced huge pre-tax losses equivalent to around NOK 7.5 billion on Friday, after setting aside USD 900 million to cover potential claims resulting from the corruption investigation. Those losses also mean losses for Telenor, with analysts saying they suggest that VimpelCom expects to be hit with large fines. The company is the target of bribery investigations in the US, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Norway.