Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson is temporarily stepping down as director of Samherji while the company waits for the results of its internal investigation into the workings of its subsidiaries in Namibia.
He is stepping down with the support of the Samherji board of directors. The news comes in the wake of an investigation by Stundin and RÚV’s Kveikur programme that revealed large bribes had been paid to powerful players in Namibia to secure valuable fishing quotas for Samherji.
Former director of Icelandair, Björgólfur Jóhannesson, has taken over at Samherji on a temporary basis. The company’s website quotes chairman of the board Eiríkur S. Jóhannsson as saying it is an important step in helping to ensure the impartiality of the investigation being carried out for the company by the international legal firm Wikborg Rein.
The Kveikur and Stundin investigation revealed that hundreds-of-millions-of-krónur in bribes were paid to two ministers and their associates, not only to secure the quota, but also to avoid paying as much tax as possible in Namibia. The companies used shell companies in tax havens to channel the money out without paying tax.
The Wikborg Rein investigation is being carried out exclusively for the board of Samherji, the company says in a statement; adding that no authorities have been in touch about any potential joint investigation relating to the activities of Samherji in Iceland, Namibia, or elsewhere.
Minister says hands clean
Fisheries minister Kristján Þór Júlíusson says that the tax office and the district prosecutor’s office are also starting to investigate the case. Kristján has come under the spotlight for the fact that he is a close friend of Þorsteinn Már and also sat on the board of Samherji for 19 years.
Asked why Samherji still owns 15 percent of Iceland’s fishing quotas when the maximum should be 12 percent, the minister told RÚV he has always been very careful to be transparent in his dealings with Samherji as fisheries minister, and that nobody has flagged any conflict of interest to date. He says an independent working group has been looking into the company’s quota and that he would have expected one of his predecessors to have set up such an investigation years ago. He also said that having been chairman of the board two decades ago has no bearing on his present-day role as an elected Member of Parliament.
Alþingi has scheduled a special debate this morning about corruption. The debate was requested by Smári McCarthy (Píratar/the Pirates) and prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir will stand for MPs questions.
The former head of the Icelandic development agency in Namibia told Fréttablaðið the Samherji investigation is a sad affair that will destroy a large swathe of Iceland’s good reputation.
Meanwhile, the whistle-blower behind the case, former Samherji executive Jóhannes Stefánsson, is being represented by the renowned anti-corruption lawyer Eva Joly. She told RÚV yesterday that the company’s response of casting all the blame for the bribes on her client is “a schoolbook example of how to try and defend yourself against whistle-blowers.”
She says it is fanciful to expect Jóhannes had the authority to transfer millions of dollars without higher approval, and that it is noteworthy that the payments did not stop when he left the company in 2016.