Wrongly jailed CEO ‘not bitter’

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Thorleif Enger, former chief executive of the large state-controlled fertilizer producer Yara, was charged, indicted, arrested and even briefly jailed for corruption before a court cleared him six years later. Now, at the age of 78, he’s won millions in compensation from the state and insists he’s not bitter.

Former Yara CEO Thorleif Enger has won millions in state compensation, four years after being acquitted of corruption charges. He now claims he’s not bitter over what’s become a 10-year legal ordeal. PHOTO: Wikipedia

“It was reasonably dramatic,” Enger told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) over the weekend when describing the early morning of May 18, 2012 when police arrived at his home in Oslo, arrested Enger for allegedly bribing high-ranking officials in India and Libya and placed him a stripped-down cell. “I really couldn’t comprehend much of what was happening.”

Enger had retired as Yara’s CEO four years earlier after what could be described as a brilliant career that had taken the man from a farm in Hokksund through a series of posts starting with Shell Oil in Houston and then rising through the ranks at Norsk Hydro. Its fertilizer and chemicals division was spun off as Yara in 2004 and Enger was tapped to be its chief executive. He also led the board for large Norwegian telecoms firm Telenor.

Suddenly his reputation was in shambles and he was facing a 10-year prison term. He was convicted in 2015 but later acquitted by an appeals court in 2017. Then it was his turn to demand compensation for his ordeal. Four years later, an Oslo appeals court (Borgarting Lagmannsrett) has ruled that Enger is due NOK 9.27 million (USD 1.2 million at current exchange rates) plus interest of NOK 128,000.

“The court made it clear that it’s the state, and not Thorleif Enger, that should cover the losses caused by an incorrect indictment and incorrect conviction in the Oslo County Court,” Enger’s lawyer, Hanne Skaaberg Holen, told state broadcaster NRK. The state was also ordered to pay within two weeks but didn’t immediately accept the ruling. “We will go through it and make an evaluation of it,” government attorney Arne Johan Dahl told NRK.

The state was ordered to compensate Enger for lost income he likely would have received through board appointments and other lucrative posts often offered to retired CEOs. Enger had claimed losses of NOK 13.8 million, but the state argued Enger had behaved in such a way that it had been “natural” to investigate him and ultimately charge him.

Enger claims the case against him and three other top Yara executives was “very surprising and uncomfortable” when it began. Internal auditors at Yara had concluded in the spring of 2011 that there were signs of suspicious activity tied to Yara’s operations in India and later in Libya, and they alerted Norway’s economic crimes unit Økokrim. After three years of investigation, Yara’s new management acknowledged irregularities and paid a fine of nearly NOK 300 million, the largest ever in Norway at the time.

The next day, two years after being arrested, state prosecutors indicted Enger, his former deputy Daniel Clauw, fellow Yara executive vice president Tor Holba and former legal director Ken Wallace. All pleaded innocent when their trials began a year later.

‘Demanding process’
“I’d gone from being a witness, to a suspect, to being charged and indicted,” Enger told DN from his home in Marbella, Spain, where he now spends parts of the year.  “It’s difficult to understand how demanding such processes are for those who haven’t been through it.” All four ex-Yara executives were found guilty, fined and sentenced to jail after quite a bit of courtroom quarreling among the. Holba and Clauw were also later later acquitted like Enger, and Holba was compensated, but Wallace’s sentence (the longest of them all at seven years) was upheld. Wallace still hasn’t spent time in jail, though. He’s an American citizen and reportedly has been living in Florida and resisting extradition to serve his jail term, on the grounds the local statute of limitations on his criminal offenses has expired.

Enger had felt a need to prove his innocence but also concedes to being “very disappointed and sorry” for the corruption that Norwegian courts have determined did occur on his watch. “I’ve had leading positions and delivered good results since 1983, I’d never been involved in any critical things like this,” Enger told DN. “It was a shock to experience at the end of my career.” He’d engaged in “need to know” practice and could ultimately argue he didn’t know about the alleged bribes for which is employee Wallace was convicted.

Enger now claims he’s mostly “relieved and glad” over the latest court verdict on compensation in his favour. He hopes it will finally bring his 10-year legal nightmare to an end, but realizes the state may still appeal it. “Then we’ll take the next round,” he told DN.

Enger claims he’s not bitter and prefers to recall instead how he once was named one of Norway’s 10 most leading industrialists since World War II.

“The fact that people who know me and mean something to me still have a positive impression, and think this never should have happened, is the most important,” Enger said.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund