Jon Fredrik Baksaas, the former chief executive of Oslo-based Telenor, launched a new salvo Thursday in the ongoing conflicts over the troubled telecoms firm. Now he claims that he regrets apologizing earlier for not telling Members of Parliament everything he knew about alleged bribery at Telenor’s partly owned mobile phone company VimpelCom Ltd.
“I have not lied,” was the headline blasted over the front page of Norway’s leading business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) Thursday morning. Inside the paper, was a full-page commentary written by Baksaas himself, in which he claimed that he spoke truthfully at a parliamentary hearing on the alleged corruption at VimpelCom in January. He also now claims that it was correct of him not to tell the committee everything he knew at the time, as he apparently tried to retract an apology he’d issued earlier this autumn, when he admitted he hadn’t revealed all the information he had about the suspected corruption.
Not only has he not lied, Baksaas wrote in DN, he has not had “any strategy to withhold information” either. “I actually don’t know whether there has been corruption at VimpelCom,” claimed Baksaas, who has formally retired as Telenor’s CEO but retained consulting work and extra pay in addition to his retirement benefits, until recently.
His commentary in DN may likely be viewed as an attempt by Baksaas to cover his own back, as the long-time chief executive of one of Norway’s biggest companies tries to restore his reputation. Telenor cut ties with him earlier this autumn as the company deals with not only the effects of a major international corruption investigation in VimpelCom but also parallel accusations that Telenor and its stake in VimpelCom have been managed by a group of white middle-aged men who have excluded women from decision-making. Telenor’s new chief executive who replaced Baksaas, Sigve Brekke, has also admitted to embellishing his resumé and having very few women in his own top management team.
Had been ready to testify again
Baksaas wrote Thursday that he had accepted an “invitation” from the parliament’s disciplinary and supervisory committee to testify at a third hearing on Telenor’s involvement with possible corruption at VimpelCom. The hearing, which had been scheduled for December 16, was indefinitely postponed at the request of the state prosecutor, though, because of fears it would conflict with the ongoing investigation in four countries.
Baksaas maintains he was willing to appear, but stresses that he’s limited in what he could reveal, in order not to jeopardize the investigation. That’s why he withheld information in January, “at the expense,” he wrote, “of being accused of lying, for being a manipulator, and for holding back information as part of a cover-up operation. That’s absolutly not the case.”
And that’s why he now regrets apologizing for withholding information, because his decision to do so “is at the core of the conflict between a parliamentary hearing and an ongoing police investigation in several countries. The committee didn’t get any untruths from me, but I couldn’t answer as completely as the committee demanded. I had to respect that, and the committee, too.”
Now Baksaas says he’s only sorry that his limitations in testifying before the parliamentary committee weren’t made clear in January. He confirms he had access to “confidential information from the investigating authorities,” but that it had to remain confidential and he couldn’t share it with the committee. “I’m sorry that this wasn’t made clear in January,” Baksaas wrote. He also wrote that none of the VimpelCom transactions suspected of being bribes occurred during his terms on VimpelCom’s board in 2010, 2011 and through to last year.
Baksaas also told DN, in an interview with the newspaper, that he’s glad he didn’t tell the parliamentary committee everything he knew. He said he wrote his commentary so that his version of events could become known, since Wednesday’s hearing was postponed.
“I don’t want to be seen as a liar and manipulator and someone who has spoken untruthfully and conducted cover-ups,” Baksaas told DN. He had hoped the new hearing would give him a chance to “balance” the impression that committee members seemed to have of him. He said he did agree, however, with the decision to postpone the hearing so as not to jeopardize the investigation.