Telia to Pay Nearly $1 Billion to Settle Uzbek Bribery Claims

By Samuel Rubenfeld Features Dow Jones Newswires

Swedish telecoms firm Telia Company AB agreed to pay nearly $1 billion to U.S. and Dutch authorities to settle allegations that the company and a subsidiary paid about $331 million in bribes in Uzbekistan.

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Telia, which is partly owned by the Swedish government, said the resolution brings to an end all known corruption investigations into the company. It remains part of a broader probe by U.S. authorities into corruption in Uzbekistan.

Telia agreed on Thursday to pay a total of $965 million in penalties and fines, the criminal portion of which will be equally split between the U.S. and Dutch authorities. The total penalty amount also includes a $457 million disgorgement to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Stockholm-based firm entered into a deferred-prosecution agreement in the U.S. charging the company with conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars the use of bribes to foreign officials to get or keep business. The subsidiary pleaded guilty.

Prosecutors said Telia and the subsidiary admitted to paying the bribes to what prosecutors called a "close relative" of the deceased former Uzbek president, Islam Karimov. That relative has been identified as his daughter, Gulnara Karimova; Uzbek authorities said in June she was detained on corruption charges. Ms. Karimova has previously denied wrongdoing. She couldn't be reached for comment.

The bribes were paid, prosecutors said, so that Telia could enter the Uzbek market and the subsidiary could gain telecom assets and continue operating in the country. The companies admitted they concealed and structured the bribes through various payments, including to a shell company that members of management knew was controlled by Ms. Karimova. The money, prosecutors said, was wired through New York banks.

"If your securities trade on our exchanges and you use our banks to move ill-gotten money, then you have to abide by our country's laws," said Joon Kim, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement.

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The settlement brings an end to an unfortunate chapter in the company's history, said Johan Dennelind, Telia's president and chief executive, in a statement. Since 2013, a new board and management have worked on understanding what happened, remedied it and sought to regain trust from stakeholders, he said.

"We have come a long way to establish a more sustainable company with a strong focus on governance and compliance, but it is a never-ending journey as we aspire to embed this into our culture making sure that all employees understand the importance of doing the right thing all the time," said Mr. Dennelind.

"The resolution and related financial sanction that we announce today is a painful reminder of what happens if we don't," he said.

The bribery accusations in the broader investigation first surfaced in 2012, when Swiss authorities named Ms. Karimova in a corruption probe. SInce then, U.S. and European authorities joined the investigation. U.S. and Dutch authorities had asked last year for $1.4 billion in penalties from Telia.

Telia is the second company to settle with U.S. authorities in the investigation. Dutch telecom VimpelCom agreed in February 2016 to pay $795 million in penalties.

Write to Samuel Rubenfeld at samuel.rubenfeld@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 21, 2017 17:09 ET (21:09 GMT)