UPDATED: An Oslo court sentenced two retired members of the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) to jail on Friday, after they were found guilty on charges of pension fraud. The charges themselves had severely shaken Norwegian legislators, who long have enjoyed generous pensions that may intentionally have been subject to vague rules.
It was the state auditor general’s office (Riksrevision) that first brought allegations a few years ago that several retired top politicians, including two former prime ministers, had received excessive pension payments. The retired politicians under probe came from a broad spectrum of political parties and included ex-prime ministers Kjell Magne Bondevik from the Christian Democrats and Gro Harlem Brundtland from the Labour Party. They were eventually cleared, along with retired top politicians from other parties, some after agreeing to refund money to the state.
Former Members of Parliament Ander Talleraas of the Conservative Party and Magnus Stangeland of the Center Party, however, were formally charged with what amounts to pension fraud because a prosecutor claimed they illegally and knowingly collected pension payments that were too high. They had failed, claimed the prosecutors, to disclose supplemental income that would have lowered their pension payouts.
On Friday Judge Jannicke Johannesen agreed, calling both men “severely negligent” in failing to question their pension payments. She sentenced Talleraas, found to have accepted NOK 2.7 million (USD 450,000) in excessive payments, to six months in prison and Stangeland, who received NOK 536,195 in excessive payments, to 60 days, exactly the terms requested by prosecutor Elisabeth Roscher. They also were ordered to pay NOK 100,000 in court costs.
One political commentator for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) called the judge’s 35-page conviction “crushing,” not least because the judge seemed to disregard testimony from Brundtland, Bondevik and another highly respected former prime minister, Kåre Willoch, who all had claimed the pension rules were difficult to understand. Willoch had claimed both Talleraas and Stangeland were being treated as “scapegoats.”
Neither Stangeland, age 69, nor Talleraas, age 64, appealed their convictions on the spot, as some political observers had expected, opting instead to exercise their right to read through the court’s evaluation and take time to consider their next move. Stangeland later said he would appeal, saying that while he expected some form of punishment, he felt the conviction for what amounts to gross negligence was too severe. “I can’t have that hanging over me,” Stangeland told Bergen newspaper BT. Talleraas later said he would appeal as well.
Both men were clearly shaken by their convictions. “This is a bad start to the New Year,” Stangeland told reporters. Talleraas called his prison term “strict.” Defense attorney Bjørn Stordrange agreed, noting that the court agreed with prosecutors on all their charges. NRK reported that the judge believed that “neither Talleraas nor Stangeland would have receive the pensions they got if they had provided the correct information (about their supplemental income).”