UPDATED: The Norwegian operations of Nordic bank Nordea are caught up in allegations that Nordea, like its rival bank DNB, also made it possible for wealthy customers to stash funds in offshore tax havens. Gunn Wærsted, who recently took over as board leader of corruption-plagued Telenor, now also faces questions since she headed Nordea’s “Wealth Management” division for the past nine years.
Nordea Norge spokesman Christian Steffensen confirmed to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday that “Wealth Management” was the division responsible for Nordea’s “private banking” services. Documents leaked from a law firm in Panama reportedly show how Nordea, along with Norway’s largest bank DNB, offered to set up so-called “postbox” companies in tax havens where wealthy customers could place assets.
Nordea officials have denied they did so, telling newspaper Aftenposten that they “only carry out administrative services for customers who had a company established through (Panama law firm) Mossack Fonseca.” Jonas Torp, communications and marketing chief for Nordea Luxembourg, denied Nordea bought companies that were registered in Panama or the British Virgin Islands from Mossack Fonseca, even though leaked documents suggest otherwise. Aftenposten is part of a probe coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that has access to 11.5 million documents that were first leaked from the law firm to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The documents contend that various companies “were sold to customer Nordea Bank SA” but Torp was firm. “Mossack Fonseca must comment on its formulation itself,” he said, denying any such sales took place: “I have checked that closely.”
The Panama law firm, which specializes in setting up complex ownership structures in tax havens around the world, wouldn’t comment but Steffensen of Nordea Norge told Aftenposten Nordea “wouldn’t be offering companies through Mossack Fonseca in the future.” Nordea didn’t plan to cut its ties with the law firm, though: “We handle administrative services on behalf of our customers. It’s also important to stress that this occurs only in accordance with laws and regulations, and everything is reported to tax authorities.” Torp said Nordea’s customers establish contact with Mossack Fonseca themselves.
Torp also claimed Nordea won’t “be used as a platform for tax evasion.” In addition to the Nordic countries, Nordea has offices in Luxembourg, Switzerland and Singapore. “From all those countries, account information will in the future automatically be sent to the countries where our customers have tax obligations.”
Around 400 companies were listed in the leaked material as being created by Mossack Fonseca with Nordea in Luxembourg and Switzerland as the client. Aftenposten has been in contact with several of Nordea’s customers tied to such companies, and none said that the goal was to hide money abroad.
Norwegian officials nonetheless think it’s “timely” to ask Wærsted to account for her role in the sorts of operations carried out by Nordea when she was one of the bank’s top executives. “I expect this will be part of the job that the government and Trade Minister Monica Mæland must do in the wake of what’s been revealed,” Terje Breivik, finance policy spokesman for the Liberal Party, told DN.
Marianne Marthinsen of the Labour Party agreed that Wærsted’s role must be clarified, not least since she now serves as the leader of Telenor’s board, which also is caught up in a corruption probe after its partly owned company VimpelCom admitted to paying bribes in connection with its expansion into Uzbekistan.
Mæland later said that the nominations committee of Telenor’s board would now evaluated Wærsted’s role in the Nordea allegations. “I’m aware that the committee is now looking at the issue,” Mæland told DN and business news service E24 on Tuesday.
DN reported that Wærsted initially failed to respond to its requests for comment and then referred questions to Nordea’s information division. Wærsted’s successor as top executive in charge of divisions including Wealth Management is also a Norwegian, Snorre Storset.
He later told DN that Nordea currently helps less than 10 Nordic customers with companies in tax havens. Storset claimed that the tax haven “constructions” were made for “international customers with complex structure of their economy.” He said that resulted in Nordea having only “a few” such customers who live in Nordic countries.
Storset also claimed that Nordea’s offshore activities conducted through Mossack Fonseca were not made known to the bank’s top management before the bank started getting questions from journalists in March, based on documents they’d obtained as part of the “Panama Papers” probe. The leader of Nordea’s Luxembourg office, he said, reports to the leader of the bank’s private banking unit, which in turn reports to the top management of which Wærsted was part.
“This is an operative question in Luxembourg,” Storset told DN. “Top management is not involved in this type of operative question.”
Danish newspaper Politiken has reported that Nordea was among the most active bank customers of the Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca. Nordea Chief Executive Casper von Koskull told Swedish Television (SVT) that the bank has now ended all cooperation with Mossack Fonseca and that he was “furious” and “surprised” by the disclosure of the tax haven activity.
He had stated in a press release earlier that following regulations was “absolutely” the highest priority for the bank. Nordea, he stated, will not encourage or provide customers with tax solutions that can be perceived as tax evasion. By reporting account information to tax authorities, he contended, Nordea “helps customers pay their taxes,” but it was unfortunate that its current routines weren’t in place earlier.