Telenor announced Wednesday it has “temporarily relieved” four high-level employees of their duties as an investigation into the company’s ties to troubled operator VimpelCom continues.
Among those suspended are Telenor’s CFO Richard Olav Aa and General Counsel Pål Wien Espen, as well as former nominees to the VimpelCom Supervisory Board Fridtjof Rusten and Ole Bjørn Sjulstad.
The move comes amid a third-party investigation by Deloitte into Telenor’s handling and oversight of its minority ownership in VimpelCom, the company said.
VimpelCom, the third-largest mobile operator in Russia, is currently under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Dutch Public Prosecution Service in relation to its business in Uzbekistan. U.S. authorities in particular are probing VimpelCom and two other companies – Mobile TeleSystems PJSC and TeliaSonera AB – on allegations the companies paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to secure wireless spectrum in Uzbekistan.
In two separate statements, Telenor said it had “no reason to believe” the executives were involved in anything nefarious, and the suspended parties have all expressed their innocence.
“We have no reason to believe that these (four) executives have been involved in the alleged corruption in VimpelCom,” Telenor Group president and CEO Sigve Brekke said in a statement. “They are trusted managers with a solid track record in Telenor.”
“Questions have however been raised about how Telenor handled concerns related to VimpelCom’s investment in Uzbekistan,” Brekke continued. “In order to address this, the Board has, among a series of measures, assigned Deloitte to perform an independent review of the handling of Telenor’s minority ownership in VimpelCom. To avoid questions being raised about the review we have come to a mutual understanding that (Aa, Espen, Rusten and Sjulstad) will be temporarily relieved of their responsibilities until the facts have been established.”
Telenor, which currently owns a 33 percent stake in VimpelCom, announced in October plans to sell its VimpelCom holdings.
On Friday, VimpelCom posted a net loss of just over $1 billion in the third quarter thanks to a provision of $900 million it set aside to deal with litigation costs related to the investigations.
On Tuesday, VimpelCom shareholders filed a class action lawsuit against the company, alleging they were misled about the legality of the company’s business practices and have “suffered greatly by the sharp decline” in the company’s share price that has resulted from ongoing investigations.
Former VimpelCom chief executive Jo Lunder, who ran the company from 2011 to 2015, was detained by Norwegian prosecutors last week in relation to the ongoing corruption investigation. Lunder was released from custody on Tuesday.