Telenor ASA Chief Executive Jon Fredrik Baksaas said he will quit the board of Amsterdam-based network operator VimpelCom Ltd., which is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission for its business dealings in Uzbekistan.
Mr. Baksaas said Monday he was stepping down from the board to protect the position of Telenor, Norway’s leading network operator, which holds 33% of the shares and 43% of the voting rights of U.S.-listed VimpelCom.
“Corruption allegations and speculations are serious and Telenor as a minority owner will continue to take necessary actions to protect its interests,” Telenor said in a statement. “By stepping down from the Supervisory Board of VimpelCom, Jon Fredrik Baksaas will eliminate any potential conflict of interest under the circumstances.”
Authorities in several countries are investigating whether VimpelCom or Swedish network operator TeliaSonera AB used bribes to further their business interests in Uzbekistan.
“There is an ongoing investigation being conducted by the SEC and the Department of Justice in the United States and the prosecutor in the Netherlands,” VimpelCom spokesman Bobby Leach told The Wall Street Journal.
“While that investigation is continuing, we will not comment on its progress, findings or anything,” Mr. Leach said.
Corruption allegations linked with Uzbekistan triggered the resignation in February 2013 of TeliaSonera’s then- chief executive, Lars Nyberg.
TeliaSonera said Tuesday that it still reserves the right to sue Mr. Nyberg and other former TeliaSonera corporate officers for damages over their role in TeliaSonera’s activities in Uzbekistan.
Mr. Nyberg, who couldn’t be reached for comment, quit after TeliaSonera’s own investigation conducted by an outside law firm criticized the company for not fully adhering to its internal guidelines when it made its investment in Uzbekistan.
However, TeliaSonera’s board said the investigation gave no substance to allegations of bribery and money laundering in Uzbekistan.
TeliaSonera is under investigation by the U.S., Dutch and Swedish authorities, said TeliaSonera spokesman Henrik Westman.
“Before [the investigations] are ready, we will not comment on them. We hope them to be finished as soon as possible,” Mr. Westman said.
In March this year, the Office of the Attorney General in Switzerland put the daughter of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov under investigation over alleged money laundering.
OAG said it had frozen more than 800 million Swiss francs ($817 million) in cash and assets as part of a probe targeting a group of people including Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Karimov.
In Norway last month, local daily Klassekampen reported that VimpelCom transferred a total of $55 million in 2007 and 2011 to accounts controlled by Ms. Karimova as payment for telecom licenses in her country.
The Journal was unable to reach Ms. Karimova for comment.
When the Swiss investigation was disclosed in March, Ms. Karimova wasn’t available to comment to the Journal. According to a BBC report, Ms. Karimova claimed in March to be under house arrest in Uzbekistan.
Telenor’s Mr. Baksaas, who served on VimpelCom’s board since 2010, has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing in connection with VimpelCom’s Uzbek licenses.
Mr. Baksaas and Telenor Chairman Svein Aaser met last month with Norway’sMinistry of Trade and Industry, which owns 54% of Telenor, to explain their role in VimpelCom’s affairs in Uzbekistan.
“I asked whether they could have done something different, and they said they couldn’t, they have been proactive and worked for external reviews in VimpelCom,” Norway’s Minister of Trade and Industry, Monica Mæland, told reporters after meeting with Telenor on Nov. 19.
Telenor said it would assist the investigations into VimpelCom. “Telenor has zero tolerance for corruption,” Mr. Baksaas said in a statement.
Mr. Baksaas will be replaced on Vimpelcom’s board by Kjell Morten Johnsen who is the head of Telenor’s European operations.
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