Norwegian Trade Minister Monica Mæland, in charge of the state’s investment in Norwegian companies, said on Wednesday that the country’s largest bank, DNB, had denied having any dealings with tax havens as late as 2014. Now they’ve been found to have set up companies for customers that allowed them to evade taxes, and Norwegian-French corruption fighter Eva Joly thinks police should investigate.
Mæland was questioned on the floor of Parliament Wednesday over what the government is doing to prevent companies in which the state holds ownership stakes from having business activity in tax havens. Mæland couldn’t answer how many times she’d asked DNB in particular about whether it had any dealings with tax havens, but told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) she’d taken it up in November 2014. Her inquiry came in the wake of international disclosures of how large companies avoided taxes by placing money in Luxembourg.
Asked whether DNB had denied involvement in tax havens, Mæland answered “That’s right. That’s the answer we received, based on what they claimed to have known. I have also told them this is something they must answer in the written report (on its DNB Luxembourg operations) I have asked for.”
In elaborating on the issue with other reporters following her appearance in Parliament, Mæland said: “We received an answer (from DNB) that that they did not contribute to either tax evasion or efforts to maintain secrecy for their cusomers.”
She said it was “too early” to conclude whether the state was given incorrect information by Norway’s biggest bank, in which the state holds around a third of its stock. “We have posed questions, and we have received answers,” Mæland said. “How correct they were, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Snorre Valen of the Socialist Left party (SV) said he finds it “sensational, to put it mildly” that DNB as late as 2014 denied it contributed towards efforts that allow customers to hide their money in tax havens. Newspaper Aftenposten has disclosed how DNB made it possible, based on documents leaked from a law firm in Panama that are part of the so-called “Panama Papers” probe. Valen noted how former Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen, from his own party, complained to DNB in 2007 when its Luxembourg unit was marketing a service that promised discretion based on Luxembourg’s policies of bank secrecy.
“When they (DNB executives) didn’t take the message from Kristin Halvorsen and answer ‘no’ to a direct question in 2007, confidence in them becomes razor thin,” Valen said.
On Wednesday, Aftenposten also reported how two top DNB executives were listed as contacts for the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama and how one of them, Håkon Hansen who now heads “private banking” for DNB’s wealthiest customers, sat on the board of DNB Luxembourg along with Tom Rathke, who has claimed he knew nothing of the so-called “post box companies” registered in the Seychelles. DNB’s chief executive, Rune Bjerke, has also claimed he nothing of them. When Aftenposten asked how that could be possible and what it says about DNB’s internal communications, its communications department failed to answer.
Eva Joly, a Norwegian who served as a judge in France and has campaigned against corruption, was also expressing a lack of confidence on Wednesday. “The time when we believed what the banks said is over,” she told newspaper Dagsavisen after following the recent reports about DNB’s tax haven involvement.
Joly, a member of the EU parliament, said the reports “are not a surprise, but a confirmation. There have been so many scandals, this applies to so many companies and so many people that we no longer can close our eyes to it. We have to act.”
Joly said that Norway and other countries affected by revelations in the Panama Papers should launch a police investigation, not least into DNB’s business with the Mossack Fonseca law firm. The investigation, she said, should concentrate on the individuals involved (the wealthy customers) but also on those enabling potential tax evasion like the banks and the law firms.
Both DNB, which already has admitted it shouldn’t have bought the registered companies in the Seychelles from Mossack Fonseca, and Nordea have said they’ve been phasing out such offshore operations. The last of the DNB companies registered in the Seychelles was liquidated after changes in the law that made it no longer possible for shareholders to remain anonymous. It’s unclear whether the companies were put down because of the ethical and potentially illegal issues involved or simply because they no longer suited the purposes for which they were intended.
Calls continued to go out on Wednesday for Bjerke’s resignation as CEO of DNB. Gregar Berg-Rolness, a former veteran employee of the Norwegian tax authority Skatteetaten who also wrote a book about tax havens, agreed with Joly that the state police’s economic crimes unit Økokrim should investigate DNB
“DNB has made it possible for major tax leakage, and that’s not nice,” Berg-Rolness told Dagsavisen on Wednesday. “Chief Executive Rune Bjerke should take his hat and go.”