UPDATED: Former prime ministers Gro Harlem Brundtland and Kåre Willoch are the latest in a string of top politicians called in to testify in a lawsuit over pension payouts to retired Members of Parliament. Two former MPs have been accused of accepting payments that were too high, and Brundtland may have strengthened their defense.
On Wednesday, Willoch also gave the defendants a boost, calling them “scapegoats” for a pension system that was seriously flawed.
Defendants Anders Talleraas and Magnus Stangeland, both former MPs from the Conservative and Center parties respectively, were often at odds with Brundtland during the time when all were active at the highest levels of Norwegian politics. As newspaper Dagsavisen wrote on Wednesday, though, they “must have loved her” on Tuesday.
That’s when Brundtland, often called “the country’s mother” after her years in government, testified that she also found the Parliament’s pension rules “unclear” and difficult to pin down. She said it wasn’t possible to obtain any guidelines in writing, and that her own communication with those administering the pensions were oral.
That’s also what Talleraas and Stangeland have claimed, but they face large fines and even prison terms for failing to report income they earned on the side of their pensions that would have reduced their pension payouts.
Brundtland also earned unexpectedly large amounts for speaking engagements after she retired, but was told that didn’t jeopardize her pension. Only when she sent a letter and received one back did she learn there were limits on additional income, even though she’d been told verbally that her income was “coincidental” and shouldn’t spur pension reductions.
“I was surprised in 2004 that it wasn’t possible to get precise information,” testified the woman most Norwegians refer to simply as “Gro.” She said she “reacted strongly” over the lack of clarity and written rules. “I had expected something else.”
There’s been speculation that the parliament’s pension schemes, known for being generous, were intentionally left vague by the politicians themselves. One former secretary for the pension administrators testified late last week that she had repeatedly sought firmer, written rules but they weren’t forthcoming. The pension system was based on trust and lacked control mechanisms.
Brundtland paid back excess pension amounts that she’d received, and hasn’t been charged in the case like Talleraas and Stangeland. Several other top politicians have also avoided charges, leading Talleraas and Stangeland to view the charges against them as “unfair.”
Former prime minister Willoch took the stand on Wednesday and expressed sympathy for his former political colleagues. He said he couldn’t believe either Talleraas or Stangeland had any premeditated plan to cheat the pension system. In addition to calling them “scapegoats,” he said it wouldn’t be “reasonable” for them to be convicted.