Yesterday afternoon, Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson, leader of the Progressive Party, announced that the Icelandic National Audit Office had found him without conflict of interest while he served as Foreign Minister and as one of four members of the government’s ad-hoc ministerial committee for privatization during the privatization of state banks Búnaðarbanki and Landsbanki in 2002.
(For background, see Iceland Review, Daily News, June 13, “Prime Minister under investigation” and May 31 “Privatization of banks draws heavy fire”.)
The PM read out loud selected parts of the report during a press conference, but the report was not made available to the media and the public until today.
The report had been submitted earlier that day to the chairman of the Budget Committee of the parliament (Alþingi) Magnús Stefánsson, also of the Progressive Party.
In question was Halldór Ásgrímsson’s competence to participate in the privatization process since fisheries company Skinney-Þinganes, of which he is a shareholder, was involved with one of the bidders, the so-called S-Group.
Halldór Ásgrímsson said that the Audit Office’s report had aimed to place its findings in the context of the “big picture”. That he had only owned 1.33 per cent of Skinney-Þinganes and his family only a quarter. His shares and those of his family represented therefore only a fraction of the total proceeds of the sale. The Audit Office further asserted, according to the PM, that the legal mandate of the ad-hoc ministerial committee for privatization was “ambiguous”, likewise the decisions the committee had made.
(Judging by the excerpts read by Halldór Ásgrímsson, the Audito Office only compared the PM’s and his family’s financial interest in the privatization to the total value of the shares sold in Búnaðarbanki, not to their own net worth.)
Halldór Ásgrímsson added that he had been on sick leave from mid-October to the end of November 2002 and therefore had not participated in the decisions made by the ad-hoc ministerial committee during that time.
Halldór Ásgrímsson concluded, “I have never had any doubts about my competence in this matter. I have participated in politics for over thirty years, and the debate [concerning the privatization of the banks] that has taken place over the past few weeks has hurt my feelings. Throughout my career, I have striven to be honest and sincere, and it is a novel experience for me to be accused of conducting myself otherwise as has happened recently. I have seen a few things during my days, but I demand that my family be left alone.”
Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir leader of the opposition Social Democratic Alliance responds in today’s Morgunblaðið. “I have already objected to having the Audit Office conduct this investigation” she said. “This type of investigation is not within the Office’s mandate, so why did they undertake it?” she said. She further questioned why the PM had presented the findings of the report. “The Audit Office reports to Alþingi and the report should first have been presented to the Budget Committee,” she said, “a minister can not decide himself whether or not he is competent.” She added that there were many further issues to be probed, for example, why the government had changed course mid-way and decided to sell controlling stakes in the banks instead of continuing to sell its shares piecemeal into the public markets, and why the placement of the controlling stakes was only advertised in Iceland, not internationally.
Other opposition leaders supported Ingibjörg Sólrún in her criticism.