Ex-minister under fire over new post

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Bjarne Håkon Hanssen, who recently resigned as a high-profile “super minister” in Jens Stoltenberg’s government, is now the target of harsh criticism after he emerged as a highly paid consultant and lobbyist in a newly started firm. Politicians in Norway, meanwhile, are being branded as naive and vulnerable to the sort of lobbying Hanssen may do in his new post.

Hanssen was one of Stoltenberg’s most trusted cabinet ministers, handling such difficult issues as immigration and, most recently, health care reform. It came as a surprise that he was stepping down after the Stoltenberg-led government won re-election last month.

At first Hanssen said he wasn’t sure what he’d be doing, and initially planned just a long holiday after years of government service.

This week, however, he showed up on the web site of a newly started public relations firm called First House, that portrayed him standing in front of a First House poster that stressed its alleged ability to win influence. Hanssen had top billing at the firm, which intends to charge as much as NOK 3,500 per hour to clients keen on getting Hanssen’s advice and help in gaining influence.

The website was quickly changed after howls of protest from opposition politicians, state officials and even professors at the University of Oslo, who called the move “immoral” and claimed it at the very least violated state quarantine rules. Hanssen and his partners, also fellow top cabinet officials, reportedly hadn’t even waited until they’d formally left the government before starting the firm.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Thursday that Hanssen and his partners had a meeting with an external public relations consultant on October 1, without informing either their respective ministries or the public about their pending venture.DN reported that Hanssen now may face a hefty fine, as much as NOK 500,000, because he didn’t tell the state commission charged with employee quarantine procedures (Karanteneutvalget) about his new job as partner in First House.

Dozens of Norwegian politicians from all parties before him have moved over to PR and lobbying roles, from Rune Gerhardsen to Carl I Hagen. But the rules are strict, and now state officials will determine whether Hanssen broke them. Hanssen himself is off on holiday in Africa, and hasn’t responded to requests for comment.

‘Naive Norwegians’

A new study, meanwhile, indicates that Hanssen may do well in his new role as a lobbyist. International PR firm Burson-Marsteller questioned 500 politicians in 15 European countries and found that 61 percent of Norwegian politicians viewed lobbyists positively, as “a constructive part of the decision process.”

That compared to just 47 percent of EU politicians, leading critics to charge that the results confirm earlier studies thatNorwegians can be naiveand vulnerable to influence peddling.

“Norwegian politicians are more easily influenced, and let themselves be swayed by power and position,” Paal Frisvold, a lobbyist for environmental group Bellona in Brussels told newspaper Aftenposten . Others agreed.

“I think we’re generally trusting, and underestimate how far some people are willing to go when major economic interests are involved,” said former cabinet minister Morten Andreas Meyer.