Alleged conflict plagues minister

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Monica Mæland, Norway’s government minister in charge of business and trade who’s been tackling corruption cases at several Norwegian companies lately, now finds herself caught in a conflict herself. She’s had to have her impartiality evaluated after she suddenly replaced the chairman of state-owned electricity producer Statkraft with a good friend who’s one of her own party colleagues.

Business and Trade Minister Monica Mæland faces tough questions over her decision to replace Statkraft's chairman with one of her own friends and party colleagues, former Culture Minister Thorhild Widvey. PHOTO: NFD

Business and Trade Minister Monica Mæland is facing questions over her decision to replace Statkraft’s chairman with one of her own friends and party colleagues, former Culture Minister Thorhild Widvey. PHOTO: NFD

It raised several eyebrows both within government and business circles and the media when Mæland effectively fired Statkraft’s chairman late last month. Mæland replaced the veteran Norwegian business leader Olav Fjell, a former head of Statoil and Hurtigruten, with Thorhild Widvey, a fellow member of the Conservative Party who recently lost her own post as one of Mæland’s ministerial colleagues in Norway’s minority coalition government.

Fjell, age 65, had led Statkraft’s board since 2012 and candidly told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he had no desire to leave Statkraft. He was, however, removed to make room for Widvey.

Olav Fjell was replaced as chairman of Statkraft. PHOTO: Statkraft

Olav Fjell was replaced as chairman of Statkraft. PHOTO: Statkraft

“I was told a week earlier that I would be replaced,” Fjell told NRK. “Out of curiosity, I asked what was behind the move. The answer was the Mæland wanted a board leader with another profile.” He said he bore no grudge against Mæland for replacing him, adding that “I think it can be good for the company to have a board leader to whom the minister has a close and good relation.”

Widvey, who just turned 60, is, like Mæland and Prime Minister Erna Solberg, a veteran politician for the Conservative Party from Norway’s West Coast. She was a Member of Parliament representing Rogaland County from 1989-1997 and served as Oil and Energy Minister from 2004-2005 in a center-right coalition government led by the Christian Democrats. She has led various boards for companies and foundations including Pharmaq, Springfondet and The Norwegian Seamen’s Church and served as Solberg’s minister in charge of culture and sports from 2013 to 2015, when Solberg shook up her cabinet and Widvey lost her post.

Just 12 days earlier, Trade Minister Mæland had called in the board leaders of all companies in which the state has an ownership stake, calling on them to "put social responsibility ahead of money." She's been dealing with corruption and ethical trouble at several big Norwegian companies, but now is facing questions herself. PHOTO: NFD

Just 12 days earlier, Trade Minister Mæland had called in the board leaders of all companies in which the state has an ownership stake, calling on them to “put social responsibility ahead of money.” She’s been dealing with corruption and ethical trouble at several big Norwegian companies, but now is facing questions herself. PHOTO: NFD

On June 17, Mæland met with the board leaders (chairmen) of all the companies in which the state has an ownership stake, not least Statkraft, which as producer of Norway’s hydroelectric power ranks as Europe’s largest supplier of renewable energy and is wholly state-owned. Fjell was at the meeting, called so that Mæland could tell them what’s expected of them in terms of anti-corruption measures. After a year of dealing with major corruption cases and questions involving such large partially state-owned firms as Telenor, Statoil and Hydro, Mæland felt a need for the board leaders “to share experience and discuss how the boards can best work to prevent corruption, and operate in an ethically defensible manner.”

Twelve days later, on Friday June 29 and just as most government officials were taking off on summer holidays, Mæland raised ethical questions herself by naming Widvey to succeed Fjell, not just because of her political connections to Widvey but because Mæland and Widvey are widely viewed as personal friends as well. Law Professor Beate Sjåfjell at the University of Oslo was among those highly critical of Mæland’s appointment of Widvey and suggested it could be illegal.

Thorhild Widvey (right) with Monica Mæland when both were still ministers in Norway's Conservatives-led coalition government. Mæland now has asked for a legal evaluation of her appointment of Widvey as leader of Statkraft's board, after Widvey lost her ministerial post. PHOTO: NFD

Thorhild Widvey (right) with Monica Mæland when both were still ministers in Norway’s Conservatives-led coalition government. Mæland now has asked for a legal evaluation of her appointment of Widvey as leader of Statkraft’s board, after Widvey lost her ministerial post. PHOTO: Kulturdepartementet/Ketil Frøland

“Mæland should absolutely have sought a closer evaluation of her impartiality before she did this,” Sjåfjell told NRK. “If she and Widvey have a close personal relationship, I would say that Mæland had a conflict of interest and probably should not have made this appointment.”

Sjåfjell said that in addition to violating regulations demanding impartiality, Mæland may also have violated N0rway’s shareholder laws that prevent Statkraft’s ownership (with Mæland representing the state in this case) from giving anyone an “unreasonable advantage” at the possible cost of the company’s interests. “Even though Widvey could surely be a good leader, it would not be in the company’s (Statkraft’s) interests that the chairman is replaced because of a minister’s personal consideration,” Sjåfjell told NRK.

The professor also tied the case to the criticism that flew when one of Mæland’s predecessors, Trond Giske of the Labour Party, also was accused of appointing political colleagues and friends to leadership posts at state-owned companies. “The Conservatives accused them at the time, with good reason, for being unprofessional in carrying out the state’s shareholder power,” Sjåfjell said. “If Mæland doesn’t come up with a better reason for replacing the board leader than wanting a ‘new profile,’ at the same time she has a close relationship with the person she appoints, then she’s no better (than Giske was).”

Mæland initially tried to downplay her personal relationship with Widvey, telling NRK that she has known Widvey “for many years, because we have been active Høyre (the Conservative Party) and we have met at conventions and central board meetings, but not privately. We have been ministerial colleagues for two years and then you of course get to know one another well. In that connection we have also been together on some private occasions.”

Close relationship ‘no secret’
Widvey herself told NRK that it “was no secret that Monica and I have a close relationship after many years together in politics.” Her new post is not a full-time job, but is compensated with an annual sum of NOK 484,000 (USD 60,000) and is one of the best-paid such posts among state-owned firms.

Mæland initially claimed she had no reason to have her impartiality evaluated by legal experts, and that if she’d been in doubt, she would have contacted the Justice Ministry. After criticism continued to fly, also from opposition politicians in Parliament and some members of the Parliament’s disciplinary committee, Mæland changed her mind.

“I still believe my relation to Widvey is not one that violates the rules for qualifications or impartiality,” Mæland stated on Friday, the day after NRK featured the possible conflict of interest on its nationwide nightly newscast Dagsrevyen. “Attention has been paid to questions about my impartiality. To avoid further uncertainty around the company (Statkraft), I will therefore ask the (the government’s legal advisers) to evaluate my qualifications tied to the choice of Widvey.”

Mæland said she was “very glad” Widvey and other new members of the board appointed by Mæland had accepted their posts. She called Statkraft’s new board “extremely competent” with solid leadership experience, “good insight into Norwegian business life and society and considerable energy competence.”

Commentators in Norwegian newspapers Aftenposten and Dagens Næringsliv (DN) weren’t satisifed this week with Mæland’s concession to ask for a professional legal evaluation of Widvey’s appointment. Aftenposten accused her of showing “weak judgment” and failing to come up with a better reason for replacing Fjell with Widvey. DN noted that Mæland wants more women as board leaders in Norway, but has landed in “a summer storm” over her choice of Widvey.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund