Debate rages over politicians’ gifts

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Norway’s coalition government is caught in yet another controversy, this time over gifts given to top ministers and how they handled them. Some say the media coverage and debate is overblown, but gift acceptance is causing more internal conflict within the government and raises issues of principle.

Liv Signe Navarsete (left) and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg have been caught up in the gift debate, and reportedly disagreed on tax dislosure. At right, Education Minister Kristin Halvorsen. PHOTO: Statsministerenskontor

The gift controversy first broke last week, when newspaper VG reported that ministers including Jonas Gahr Støre and Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen had received some expensive gifts from foreign leaders. Instead of turning the gifts over to the state, they accepted them personally.

Even though the gifts were assessed and listed as taxable income, the issue proved uncomfortable enough that the government quickly tightened the rules around acceptance of such gifts. Since then, however, one story after another has hit the local headlines, about ministers accepting other gifts and not reporting them, or failing to list their value as taxable income.

Liv Signe Navarsete, minister for local governments and head of the Center Party, has been the target of the most criticism, for failing to report the gift of an expensive bracelet from a shipyard controlled by industrialist Kjell Inge Røkke. She has apologized, but now actually faces possible bribery charges.

Her insistence at releasing her tax returns to prove that she paid tax on the gift also set off a new internal quarrel within the government coalition, reports newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), because it forced other ministers to release their tax returns as well. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, already unhappy over his fellow minister’s gift blunder, didn’t think tax return release was warranted.

Troublesome ‘godmother’ role
Røkke, meanwhile, has issued an unusual press statement denying any attempt at bribery. He claims he’s never even met Navarsete and wasn’t aware she had been the godmother of one of his yard’s vessels, a role that led to the gift. He said it was the owner of the vessel, not the yard, that chose Navarsete to be godmother.

Meanwhile, Navarsete’s party colleague Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa has also landed in hot water over her own acceptance of a bracelet, while officials of the Center Party itself conceded Thursday night that it shouldn’t have accepted around NOK 700,000 from two power companies to profile its promotion of alternative energy. The party will now pay the money back.

Otherwise the amounts involved in the ongoing revelations about politicians’ gifts are mostly under NOK 30,000 (USD 5,000) and critics of the critics claim it’s all “a tempest in a teapot.” Former Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik told newspaper Aftenposten this week that he had also received “several hundred” gifts when he was in office, and he had no intention of returning them. Other former politicians are providing a steady stream of handing back everything from silverware to art objects to the state.

‘Details’
Eva Joly, the Norwegian lawyer who gained fame for fighting corruption in France and now is running for the French presidency, dismissed most of the current gift debate in Norway as too much focus on “details” and not enough on prospects for far more major attempts at bribery.

She said her office shelved cases involving gifts valued at less than NOK 1 million, calling the amounts figuring into the Norwegian controversy as “small change.” She urged the media and state officials to instead focus their energy on the weapons or construction industries.

Others suggest politicians should be more careful about accepting and reporting gifts, and perhaps stop performing as godmothers.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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