Thorsteinn Mar Baldvinsson, CEO of Icelandic fishing giant Samherji, submitted his first affidavit with the High Court of Namibia as part of the ongoing cash-for-quotas corruption case against the company, “vehemently” denying any involvement or knowledge of the alleged illicit activities.
The case stems from allegations in November 2019 made by the former managing director at the group's Namibian affiliates, Johannes Stefansson, suggesting Samherji bribed Namibian officials in exchange for lucrative pelagic fishing quotas in the country’s waters.
The case gained higher profile when website Wikileaks posted thousands of emails and documents on a page it dubbed "Fishrot," which purported to show evidence of wrongdoing.
It has since become one of the most complex legal sagas in the seafood sector's history.
In one of his earliest interviews on the scandal, Stefansson alleged that during his time running the company's Namibian operations, Samherji, at the direction of Baldvinsson, was involved in efforts to bribe officials in exchange for quota to harvest fisheries resources.
Stefansson was fired from the company in the summer of 2016.
The case, known in Namibia as the Fishcor corruption case, was transferred to Namibia’s High Court in December. A hearing is scheduled for June 8.
In his affidavit, obtained by Icelandic news site Kjarninn, Baldvinsson, who recently returned to the CEO post after recusing himself during a third-party investigation of the company's dealings in Nambia, said he "vehemently" denied any involvement "in the alleged corrupt scheme or any unlawful activity in Namibia or relating to Namibia.”
Instead Baldvinsson places the blame for any alleged wrongdoing at the feet of "disgruntled employee" Stefansson and denied all knowledge of any alleged bribes, “improper payments,” or unlawful activity.
“If Mr. Stefansson was part of an unlawful scheme, he certainly never informed me about it,” said Baldvinsson.
In response to an affidavit submitted by Namibia’s Prosecutor-General, Baldvinsson makes a point-by-point rebuttal of all allegations, including accusations that he was the "main architect" of business agreements with Fischor and Namgomar.
“I was not involved in negotiating those agreements and can certainly not be described as the 'main architect' of those agreements, which were in fact negotiated and agreed to by Mr. Stefansson,” he said.
“If there was anything unlawful in those agreements, only Mr. Stefansson, and no one else, most certainly not me, would have been party to it.”
Fired long ago
Baldvinsson makes a point of distancing himself from Stefansson in the affidavit, claiming Stefansson did not “work under my direct supervision, direction or decisions.”
From the start of his employment until his departure in December 2016, Stefansson ran Samherji's operations in Namibia autonomously, Baldvinsson claimed.
“All business decisions were made by him," Baldvinsson wrote. "Had he worked under my direct supervision, he would have been fired long ago."
Stefansson alleged in an interview with Al Jazeera that when it became clear former Namibian Fisheries and Marine Resources Minister Bernard Esau was seeking an under-the-table payment of $60,000 (€50,000) to secure quotas, a Samherji official told him to move forward.
"If the minister of fisheries wants to get bribes, you pay him bribes," Stefansson said he was told. "So I gave him a sports bag full of cash."
Esau and his son-in-law, Tamson Hatuikulipi, were later taken into custody for their involvement in the alleged bribery scheme.
Baldvinsson admitted to visiting Namibia and meeting with the then fisheries Minister Esau, where “obviously” fishing capacity was discussed.
“I was certainly not aware that it was ever even contemplated that the Minister would benefit from the fishing operations,” he said.
Vexatious and frivolous
Baldvinsson also denied being responsible for authorizing any payments -- as alleged by Stefansson -- and in fact, claimed Stefansson was in control of the Namibian operations and directed payment of expenses.
“[These allegations are] vexatious and frivolous,” said Baldvinsson. “Not a single document is attached, not a single sentence or word that I may allegedly have used is quoted to support such wild and farfetched conclusions.
“I do not know what motivation Mr. Stefansson has for making these ridiculous allegations. He is, with respect, a disgruntled employee that had to be removed from the Namibian business because of the mess that he created.”
Baldvinsson further slammed the “wild allegations” that the prosecutor-general and Stefansson "are prepared to make to allege unlawful conduct on the part of myself, Mr. Adalsteinn, Mr. Juliusson, Mr. Arnason and the Namibian companies."
Under Namibian law, only existing holders of fishing rights can be allocated fish quotas. Therefore, the only way the companies referenced in the case could have become involved in the Namibian fishing industry was to conclude usage agreements or catching agreements with existing fishing rights holders who were allocated fishing quotas.
Obviously, those agreements would have had to benefit the companies otherwise they would have had no incentive to enter into them, said Baldvinsson.
“Yet the prosecutor-general ignores the established legal basis on which non-rights holders conduct fishing business in Namibia and recklessly makes unsubstantiated allegations and arrives at unjustified conclusions," he said.
Icelandic Central Bank Case
Baldvinsson claims he never managed any of the Namibian companies and had limited knowledge of its day-to-day operations. In fact, Stefansson managed the Namibian operations until he was removed, asserted Baldvinsson.
"[T]he Namibian operations formed a minor part of the overall operations of the Samherji group and certainly did not justify my direct involvement in operational matters," he said.
Baldvinsson also referenced the long-running legal battle with Iceland’s Central Bank, which began with Samherji's offices being raided in March 2012, noting that the alleged Namibian deals were supposedly taking place during that time.
Baldvinsson said this case put a great strain on Samherji's senior management, including himself.
“There would simply have been no time, resources or energy for me to be deeply involved in a remote, minor and rather insignificant operation on the other side of the planet," he said.
In conclusion Baldvinsson reasserted that he was never involved in, knew of, or even suspected Stefansson was involved in corrupt deals or was involving any of the group's Namibian companies.
“This is simply not the way we at Samherji do business," Baldvinsson said.
Norwegian bank DNB was also implicated in the scandal for potentially aiding money-laundering, though an investigation later cleared the group of wrongdoing.
In February, Samherji announced it expected three of its fishing affiliates are expected to be indicted in a Windhoek, Namibia, court as part of the ongoing trial, but continued to deny any wrongdoing.
Samherji has consistently fought back against press reports in Iceland and abroad related to the ongoing saga, which it claims have been too quick to give credence to Stefansson's claims and published inaccuracies about the company's operations.
"I can no longer stay silent because now Stefansson says that my co-workers or I attempted to kill him. Accusations against a person do not get any more severe than that," Baldvinsson said at the time. "I'm grossly offended, so it's inevitable to respond and counter this."
Samherji is one of the world's largest seafood companies, with investments and assets stretching across the globe.