VimpelCom to pay $795 million to resolve U.S., Dutch bribery probes

NEW YORK/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - VimpelCom Ltd, an Amsterdam-based telecommunications operator, said on Thursday it would pay $795 million to resolve U.S. and Dutch probes into a bribery scheme in Uzbekistan, in the second largest global anti-corruption settlement in history.

The settlement was announced in a federal court in Manhattan, where a subsidiary pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate a U.S. anti-corruption law by paying $114 million in bribes from 2006 to 2012 to a Uzbekistan official.

The official, described in court papers as high-ranking and a relative of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, matched the description of his daughter, Gulnara Karimova, who has long been identified as being at the center of the probe.

In a related action, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit seeking the forfeiture of $550 million in Swiss bank accounts tied to corrupt payments to the official by VimpelCom and two other companies.

The payments by VimpelCom, Teliasonera AB and Mobile TeleSystems, were paid to shell companies the official controlled for help entering and operating in the Uzbek telecommunications market, the Justice Department said.

Combined with an earlier lawsuit, the Justice Department is seeking to recover $850 million paid in the scheme, the largest sum U.S. authorities have ever sought to recover from a government official.

VimpelCom’s settlement, which called for the retention of a compliance monitor, resolved probes by the Justice Department, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Public Prosecution Service of the Netherlands.

It marked a near record for a global anti-corruption accord, behind only Siemens AG’s $1.6 billion settlement in 2008 that resolved wide-ranging bribery probes in the United States and Germany.

VimpelCom, whose biggest shareholders are Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman’s LetterOne and Norway’s Telenor, took a $900 million provision in November to resolve the investigations.

Under the deal, VimpelCom entered into a deferred prosecution agreement in which U.S. criminal charges will be dropped in three years if it follows the agreement’s terms.

Uzbek subsidiary Unitel LLC pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

“The company deeply regrets its actions here, and we will make sure it never happens again,” Scott Dresser, VimpelCom’s general counsel, said in court.

U.S. and Dutch authorities said the investigation continued into other companies and individuals involved in the scheme, including one man Dutch prosecutors said was arrested in November.

Mobile TeleSystems declined comment. Neither Teliasonera nor lawyers for Uzbekistan responded to requests for comment.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by Leslie Adler, Peter Cooney and Alexander Smith