Questions have arisen over whether government minister Liv Signe Navarsete should continue reporting for work as usual. She heads the small farmer-friendly Center Party, which now is under police investigation for funding violations.
Both Navarsete and her boss, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, defended her decision to conduct “business as usual” while the investigation proceeds. News broke on Wednesday that Norway’s special police unit for white collar crime, Økokrim, is investigating whether Center Party officials including Navarsete broke campaign funding laws.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv reported in September that a total of NOK 900,000 (about USD 150,000) was paid to the party by various publicly owned power companies, allegedly to fund projects tied to renewable energy projects. Instead, most of the money when straight into the party’s campaign coffers and only a small portion was used for the projects outlined on invoices involved. Not only were the funds used for their stated purpose, publicly owned companies are not otherwise allowed to make general financial contributions to political parties.
Navarsete has taken responsibility for what appears to be a misappropriation of funding, and refunded the money to the power companies. She and other party officials continue to be under criticism, however, not least after a national accounting association uncovered several violations of accounting regulations.
Per Hanstad, managing director of the association, told newspaper Aftenposten he thinks Navarsete has so far gotten off too easily, and he welcomes the police investigation. He noted that Navarsete also wasn’t willing to disclose all documentation connected to the case.
Navarsete claims neither she nor other party officials have anything to hide “and will see to it that Økokrim gets access to everything they want.” Meanwhile, she told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday that she’ll continue to go to work at the ministry for regional governments (Kommunal- and regional departementet) as usual.
“As long as the investigation proceeds, I will work as usual and do my job both as party leader and cabinet minister,” she told NRK. Asked whether she understood that may be controversial, she said that “if I were personally under investigation, I would, but I’m not.”
She also said it was important to draw a line between her roles as leader of the Center Party and member of the government. “And it’s the party that’s under investigation regarding a concrete matter,” she told NRK.
Stoltenberg defended her decision to continue working and indicated she has his confidence, at least so far. “She continues as statsråd (cabinet minister),” Stoltenberg told NRK. “Now the investigation is underway, then we’ll evaluate the situation.”
Navarsete, who also got in political trouble earlier this year for accepting some controversial gifts, admitted she looked forward to some time off during the Christmas holiday period. “It hasn’t been a good autumn, because of this,” she said. “It’s something we must live with, we can’t blame anyone else. The responsibility lies with us and we did something wrong.”
The Center Party has been steadily losing voter support, but the extent of the damage remains unclear. Frank Aarebrot, a political science professor at the University of Bergen, said he didn’t think the party’s main supporters, farmers, would desert it now.
“If you’re a farmer who lives off government subsidies (championed by the Center Party), you’re more pre-occupied with retaining them than you are about accounting laws,” Aarebrot told Aftenposten.