Jo Lunder, the former Telenor executive now charged with corruption, spent his first day after being released from jail facing reporters on Wednesday. After refusing to answer questions for the past several years about his involvement with Telenor’s partly owned company VimpelCom, he was clearly taking his defense lawyer’s advice to adopt a new strategy.
Lunder appeared weary but poised and surprisingly articulate given his ordeal of the past week. Lunder was released from prison on Tuesday after an appeals court failed to hear prosecutors’ pleas that he be kept in custody. An Oslo court had ordered his release last Friday, on the grounds that it could see no reason to suspect Lunder of being directly involved in the bribery allegations swirling around VimpelCom. He had to stay in prison, though, pending the appeal.
He remains charged with corruption, and that prompted his defense attorney Cato Schiøtz to unleash a barrage of criticism against prosecutors at the Norwegian police’s economic crime unit Økokrim. The allegedly unfounded charges against Lunder, his arrest last week and the nearly six days he had to spend in custody have been highly damaging for his client, Schiøtz claimed. Prosecutors, he said, have “dumped their own ignorance” on Jo Lunder.
‘Criminal procedure at its worst’
Schiøtz referred to the state prosecutors’ actions as “Norwegian criminal procedure at its worst.” He claimed there was no evidence that Lunder’s own alleged attempts to address the corruption issues were “phoney,” and that prosecutors consciously omitted information from the minutes of VimpelCom board meetings that had described Lunder as “cautious.”
Lead prosecutor Marianne Djupesland, fresh from successfully prosecuting another major corruption case against large Norwegian fertilizer firm, Yara International, declined comment until Lunder’s and Schiøtz’ press conference was over. She later told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that “our only goal (in Økokrim’s investigation) is to find out what has happened and who knew what in VimpelCom’s management when (alleged bribery payments) were made.” She wouldn’t say when or whether the charges against Lunder might be dropped.
Schiøtz, one of Norway’s most prominent attorneys, had already made it clear that Lunder’s earlier policy of refusing to comment on the VimpelCom case as it unraveled, was not wise. He said it was now “praiseworthy” that Lunder agreed to “face the public” and answer some questions, but not all.
Charges ‘extremely problematic’ for Lunder
Lunder said straight away that it was “extremely problematic” for him personally to remain charged and thus under suspicion of wrongdoing. He said it means he’ll probably have to go on leave from the new job he took on just last summer, running the financial empire of Norwegian tycoon John Fredriksen. The Fredriksen group is comprised of many stocklisted companies, Lunder noted, and it’s crucial that business associates, regulators, stockholders and Fredriksen himself have full confidence in him. As long as he remains charged, Lunder suggested he’ll be under a cloud and must spend his time defending himself.
As for his involvement with VimpelCom, where he initially served as Telenor’s main representative on the Russian mobile phone company’s board, Lunder said he felt he had “done what I could, and can’t see what else I could have done” to prevent the company from allegedly paying bribes to expand into Uzbekistan.
“I feel, and can confirm, that the work we did at that time (at VimpelCom) was thorough and good,” Lunder said. “When I received a warning (of suspicious payments) we took a ‘time-out’ and didn’t sign some agreements before we’d looked into them better.” That’s when Telenor also allegedly was uncertain about possible corruption tied to VimpelCom’s expansion into Uzbekistan.
Mum on what Telenor knew or did
Lunder refused to go into detail about how the bribery alarm was followed up at Telenor, though, and he wouldn’t elaborate on Telenor’s involvement, for fear of jeopardizing the investigations going on into VimpelCom and Telenor in four countries. Telenor itself is now under fire for withholding information. Lunder would only say that he, as VimpelCom’s chief executive in 2011, when millions of US dollars were paid out to a firm tied to the daughter of Uzbeikstan’s dictator, “had advice and recommendations from everyone who should know” about the risks of corruption.
“In addition, the process was well-organized, with experts who worked for me,” Lunder said. He felt it was correct for VimpelCom to move forward with its efforts to obtain mobile phone 4G licenses in Uzbekistan, and that two of VimpelCom’s competitors already had such licenses. “That gave me more comfort,” Lunder said. He denied either he or others at Telenor or VimpelCom had been naive about the potential for corruption.
He said he also took his “own action” after Dagens Næringsliv (DN) began to write about the corruption suspicions at Telenor’s partly owned VimpelCom in 2012. “I have tried to cooperate with the Dutch and the Americans (among those conducting investigations of VimpelCom) as well as I could, after the raid,” he said, referring to the investigators’ raids on offices and seizure of files.
Lunder claimed he has tried “to lay all the facts on the table” and is anxious to restore confidence in his work. “I have built up my entire professional life by creating confidence and being a credible person,” Lunder said, acknowledging that he now was in an extremely unfortunate situation.