A farmer in Hedmark County and an accountant for the farmers’ cooperative Gartnerhallen have been indicted for embezzling nearly NOK 50 million from the co-op over a 10-year period. Now they both face six years in prison.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) had first reported on the embezzlement last summer, when the accounting employee of what ranks as Norway’s largest marketing coop for fruit and vegetable growers admitted to gross misappropriation of funds. He also admitted that he had transferred millions of kroner to a farmer and co-op member in Hedmark.
The farmer claimed he’d received the money in the form of loans, and that it amounted to NOK 18 million, not NOK 50 million. Investigators at the state police’s economic crimes unit Økokrim, who were called in by Gartnerhallen’s management, thought otherwise, and have now determined that the accountant transferred around NOK 45 million to the farmer, and around NOK 3 million to himself.
“It’s the accountant who, by manipulating accounts, has managed to pay out this amount,” prosecutor Geir Kavlie told NRK over the weekend.
The case now amounts to one of the largest embezzlement cases in Økokrim’s history. Garnerhallen, located at Alnabru in Oslo, is Norway’s largest member organization for fruit, berry, vegetable and potato farmers, owned by 1,165 producers. It had revenues of NOK 2.3 billion (USD 287 million) last year.
The accountant claims he was pressured into transferring the money to the farmer, but it’s not clear why. That’s likely to come out in court, according to Kavlie.
“We have no other knowledge at this time than that this supplier (the farmer) got the accountant to pay out the money to him,” Kavlie told NRK. The farmer was forced into bankruptcy in early August after Økokrim seized the money in his own accounts along with assets including a Porsche.
Elisabeth Morthen, chief executive of Gartnerhallen, told NRK it was “of course a big shock for the entire organization to learn that an employees we had faith in, who had worked for us for a long time, could do something like this.” She said the illegal transfers of money from the Gartnerhallen co-op to the farmer were carried out in a “subtle and speculative manner” and were thus difficult to detect.
Økokrim agreed that the embezzlement was hidden in Gartnerhallen’s accounts, but also that the co-op also lacked sufficient control routines. Morthen said her organization has ordered an external probe to find out how this could have occurred. “When something like this has been going on for 10 years without any of us discovering it, we of course must examine our routines and see whether it’s possible to improve routines,” she said.
Berit Reiss-Andersen, defense attorney for the accountant who also leads the Norwegian Nobel Committee, declined comment on the case. It’s due to come up in court in February.