Thorleif Enger, the embattled former chief executive of Oslo-based fertilizer firm Yara, was acquitted on Friday by the jury hearing his appeal of his conviction for corruption. Two other former Yara bosses were also cleared, with only one member of Yara’s longtime management team convicted of corruption involving Yara operations in Libya and India.
The acquittals initially seemed to confound Norway’s white-collar crime unit Økokrim and state prosecutors, who’ve been battling alleged corruption at several Norwegian companies in recent years. Yara itself had already accepted and paid what amounted to the largest fine ever levied against a Norwegian company, after the state first brought its corruption charges against Yara and later indicted members of Yara’s former top management in January 2014.
Enger and other members of his management team had first been charged in 2012, four years or more after most had already retired or left the company. Enger had been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison by an Oslo City Court last summer but appealed.
So did his former Yara management colleagues including Kendrick Wallace, Daniel Clauw and Tor Holba, all of whom were accused of involvement in alleged bribery payments in connection with Yara’s business deals in Libya and/or India.
Norwegian media reported Friday that an appeals court jury in Oslo upheld only the convictions against Wallace, an American who served as Yara’s chief legal counsel. He was sentenced to prison for two years and six months on two counts of serious corruption.
Enger, Clauw and Holba were all acquitted on all counts. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), which has followed the complicated case closely, reported Friday morning that the judges hearing the case in the appeals court (Borgarting lagmannsrett) have accepted the jury’s decision, so it stands.
‘Big, big relief’
Details of the court decision were pending, but it marks a major victory for Enger, who professed innocence and repeatedly claimed he never had any knowledge of bribery payments, nor would he have approved any. Wallace had testified that there was an alleged understanding among top executives that Enger not be given information about questionable dealings. Enger firmly denied that, calling it “unthinkable.”
“This ruling is a big, big relief after all these years,” Enger’s defense attorney, Ellen Holager Andenæs, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Newspaper Aftenposten reported that Enger himself was clearly pleased and relieved but left the courtroom without commenting on the decision. Andenæs told DN she did not want to comment on the case further on Friday.
The defense attorney for Wallace, the only former Yara executive to be convicted for a second time, told Aftenposten that he and his client had so far been unable to digest the appeals court’s evaluation of evidence against Wallace but would “need to relate to it.” Prosecutors, meanwhile, were left with judicial conclusions “that are partially different than what the local court drew, and we of course respect that,” according to lead prosecutor Marianne Djupesland of Økokrim.
Hoping for ‘preventative effect’
Djupesland told Aftenposten that the appeals court concluded that serious corruption had occurred in Libya and India “and that the former legal counsel was responsible for it. Looking at it that way, this ruling will hopefully send a signal to other companies that will scare them from paying these kinds of bribes in the future.”
Asked for her reaction to the acquittal of Enger, who’d been in charge of Wallace, Clauw and Holba, Djupesland said that “we have a city court decision going in one direction and an appeals court decision going in the other. We must respect that. It’s part of our justice system that those indicted have an opportunity to have their cases heard at the two levels.”
Lawyers for Holba and Clauw indicated they were glad their clients had been believed. They noted that Holba, a Norwegian who maintained that he was the one who first brought the alleged bribery to Enger’s attention, has felt unfairly treated since he viewed himself as a whistleblower who ended up indicted. The defense attorney for Clauw, a French citizen, told Aftenposten his client was also relieved and would now “travel home to France.”
The lengthy case had led to several of the former Yara executives pointing fingers against each other as it proceeded through the court system. The corruption charges had been filed after investigations that began in the spring of 2011, when suspicions rose that Yara had made questionable payments to the sons, for example, of high-ranking officials in Libya and India.
The case has generated headlines in Norway for years, not only because of its scope and Yara’s own acceptance of a fine amountng to NOK 295 million, but also because the state owns a 36 percent stake in Yara. The government, which plays a key role in appointing Yara’s board of directors, has also caught criticism for not being diligent.
The corruption case against Yara, along with those against other state-controlled companies, was also an embarrassment for the Norwegian government. There was a perceived need to prosecute after investigations by both the state’s white-collar crime unit and a law firm hired by Yara itself concluded in the summer of 2012 that large, “unacceptable payments” were paid out by a Yara subsidiary based in Switzerland. It was unclear whether any further appeals would be filed.