Bjorgulfur Johannsson, interim CEO of embattled Icelandic fishing giant has quashed suggestions in the Icelandic media that the investigation into the Namibian cash for quotas scandal by law firm Wikborg Rein is merely a smokescreen that will ultimately clear the company of any wrongdoing.

After news of the scandal broke in November, Samherji recruited Johannsson and the Norwegian law specialist in an effort to contain fallout as the company battled a media onslaught.

In short, Johannsson's main task could be seen as steadying the ship while investigations are being carried out.

Who is Bjorgolfur Johannsson?

Johannsson, 64, known as Bubbi, retired as CEO and President of Icelandair Group in 2019.

Began his career as auditor among other for Samherji and other Icelandic seafood companies, shifting his career towards management, later becoming CEO of leading seafood company Icelandic Group before Síldarvinnslan.

He became CEO and President of Icelandair Group as tourism became one of Iceland’s important sectors.

The executive has also chaired influential Icelandic fishing industry bodies and held several executive board roles in Iceland’s largest or most important companies.

But in an exclusive interview with IntraFish, the executive is quick to point out Samherji did not wait for authorities in Iceland and Namibia to carry out their investigations and that it is not interfering in Wikborg Rein's probe.

"The company wants to know itself what was happening," Johannsson said.

Although investigations carried out by authorities in Iceland and Namibia may take longer, Samherji's internal probe could be completed by April.

Johannsson does not expect to stay as Samherji's interim CEO beyond the first half of this year, and depending on the outcome is not ruling out the return of CEO Thorsteinn Mar Baldvinsson who stepped aside to allow the internal probe to be conducted.

"He has been around in the fishing industry in Iceland for years and years and he is probably the guy who knows most about fisheries both in Iceland and in Europe," he said.

Wider implications for Iceland

As the scandal broke, Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir vowed to leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom of the matter.

So what kind of impact does Johannsson expect the cash for quotas scandal to have on the Icelandic fisheries and processing sectors?

"It might be a positive thing that each and every company within the fishing sector will try to strengthen their compliance systems," he said, adding that it could also lead to more transparency in reporting activities among Icelandic fisheries companies both large and small.

Last week Samherji said it has taken steps to implement a corporate governance and compliance system in the wake of the Namibian cash-for-quotas scandal.

The new regimes will come under the Samherji group’s future management structure and will cover all subsidiaries.

Salvaging Samherji's reputation amid the cash for quotas scandal that has blighted the company is a major undertaking, not least for Johannsson who apart from some company directorships had considered himself retired.

"It's a different challenge," said Johannsson, who steered Icelandair's recovery through the meltdown of the Icelandic financial system, the global financial crash of 2008 and the costly Icelandic volcano eruption.

In a statement before Christmas aimed at reassuring coworkers, the company said it is analyzing other allegations, many of them serious.

Johannsson did not elaborate on this but said Samherji is now focusing on bribery accusations, having ruled out the possibility that the company was involved in money laundering activities.

He reiterated Samherji's earlier statement dismissing media claims that it owned the company Cape Cod Financial Services (Cape Cod FS) FS or that JPC Shipmanagement, which provided crewing services to Samherji’s companies, owned Cape Cod FS on Samherji’s behalf.

Norway's DNB bank was swept up in the Samherji bribery scandal, the biggest ever to hit a Norwegian bank. DNB reportedly closed the bank accounts in May 2018 for the shell company Cape Cod Financial Services (Cape Cod FS) in the tax haven Marshall Island, where Samherji was allegedly funneling its proceeds.

DNB could not find beneficial information on the owner of Cape Cod FS when it ran a risk assessment, immediately closing down the bank accounts and cutting all business with the client.

It was alleged Samherji used Cape Cod FS for more than seven years before DNB discovered it lacked information on the identity of the owner.

Namibian exit

Samherji is pulling out of operations in Namibia but says this will take time working in close contact with relevant authorities and in line with international standards and law.

The cash for quotas scandal cost the jobs of Namibian cabinet ministers, as well as the managing director of South Africa-based investment firm Investec Asset Management.

The scandal came to light after the company's former Namibia CEO Johannes Stefansson made serious bribery allegations against the company.

Stefansson, now a whistleblower working with Nambian anti-corruption authorities, admitted implementing bribe payments on the authorization of Mar Baldvinsson.

WikiLeaks, meanwhile, published more than over 30,000 documents (the first of two batches) it said it obtained from a whistleblower within Samherji.

Despite the seriousness of the allegations, Johannsson said there has been no tangible impact on the company's business relationships.

"We haven't lost any customers so far but they are concerned about this and we have been working very closely with them," he said.