Critics bash ministers’ gifts

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Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has suddenly found himself at the center of controversy, after reports emerged that he and government colleagues have accepted sometimes expensive gifts from their foreign counterparts. Debate over whether that’s appropriate may lead to stricter rules.

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre (left) meeting with Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai earlier this year. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Støre’s involvement in the gift controversy marks the first time he’s personally been the target of public criticism, and it’s “knocked him off his pedestal,” according to newspaper commentators. He quickly confirmed receipt of the gifts, which included carpets from Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, and even told newspaper VG on Friday that he may not have paid enough tax on them to Norwegian authorities.

Støre had been open about the gifts as required by government regulation, and even listed their value as extra income on his tax return, meaning he personally paid tax to Norway on them. But it’s the personal acceptance of gifts received in connection with official duties that’s riled the critics.

Anne-Grethe Strøm-Erichsen is also in the spotlight for having accepted gifts when she was defense minister. PHOTO: regjeringen.no

It was VG that broke the story about the carpets Støre has been given (five, worth an estimated NOK 20,000, or USD 3,000) and a watch given to his government colleague from the Labour Party, Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen, when she was Norway’s defense minister. The watch came from her Swiss counterpart, and is valued at NOK 7,375. VG reported that all told, Strøm-Erichsen has accepted gifts worth a total of NOK 55,000 (about USD 9,000).

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg also has been given a carpet, and he had it appraised, reported it on his tax return and paid income tax on it,  as did Støre and Strøm-Erichsen.

Government bureaucrats in Norway aren’t allowed to accept gifts, to prevent bribery, but government ministers are exempted from the ban. They can, according to rules set by Parliament in 2000, accept personal gifts as long as they’re publicly declared.

“They (the ministers) have followed the rules,” says Karl Eirik Schjøtt-Pedersen of the prime minister’s office. He’s also from the Labour Party and defends his colleagues.

“In Afghanistan, there’s a long tradition of giving carpets as gifts,” Schjøtt-Pedersen told newspaper Aftenposten. “And it’s polite to accept them.”

He conceded that such gifts generally are turned over to the ministry’s offices, “but in some cases, they go into the recipients’ private ownership.” And Støre, Strøm-Erichsen and Stoltenberg followed the rules in that case as well, by reporting them on their tax forms.

“If those rules change, the ministers will follow them,” claimed Schjøtt-Pedersen.

Given the public criticism, it’s likely the rules will change. “We’ll review the regulations here,” he said. In Sweden, for example, any gifts given to government ministers are required to be turned over to the state.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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