Two former Members of Parliament pleaded “not guilty” in an Oslo court on Tuesday when their trial for alleged pension fraud began. Four former prime ministers and a long list of top politicians will be among those testifying as the trial proceeds.
It’s a landmark court case for Norway, involving the highest levels of government and what some say is a test of how complicated Norway’s pension rules can be. Neither retired MP Anders Talleraas of the Conservatives nor his former colleague from the Center Party, Magnus Stangeland, were aware they were receiving pension payments that were too high, according to them.
Stangeland’s defense attorney, Svein Aage Valen, claimed in court that his client was both “under-informed” and at least partly “led astray” by the parliament’s own administration. Much of the contact Stangeland had with the parliament’s pension administrators was verbal, Valen said while trying to explain why his client received more than NOK 500,000 in excess pension payments.
Talleraas, meanwhile, has been reported to have received around NOK 2.7 million in excess pension payments after he retired early in 2001 at the age of 55 but after sitting 20 years in parliament.
Talleraas applied for his pension under the so-called “75-year rule” that combines age and years of service, known for being an especially generous pension program for politicians. He was granted the pension, but ended up being disqualified because he earned too much extra income on the side.
Stangeland and Talleraas were not alone when a state commission for the auditor general’s office discovered they and others had received too much in money, but they were the only ones to be charged. Others including former Prime Ministers Kjell Magne Bondevik of the Christian Democrats and Former Environmental Minister Thorbjørn Berntsen of the Labour Party were excused.
Prosecutors determined that the excess amounts paid to Stangeland and Talleraas were too high to avoid charges. Investigators from white collar crime unit Økokrim also claimed Stangeland hadn’t fully reported how much he earned in addition to his payment.
The trial is expected to last three weeks. In the witness box will be Bondevik and fellow former prime ministers including Gro Harlem Brundtland, Kåre Willoch, Thorbjørn Jagland and others acting as character witnesses. Willoch already has indicated sympathy for both former politicians, not least if they were following the advice of parliamentary bureaucrats.