Sex scandal rocks another party

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Norway’s small Liberal Party (Venstre), which has been building itself up again under new leadership, was rocked by rape charges filed Monday against its deputy leader Helge Solum Larsen. He was immediately stripped of all party posts and was admitted to the psychiatric unit of a west coast hospital.

Helge Solum Larsen, at right, has been an important part of the Liberal Party (Venstre)'s new leadership, and the rape charges against him are a huge blow to the party's rebuilding efforts. At left, co-deputy leader Ola Elvestuen and party leader Trine Skei Grande. PHOTO: Venstre

Larsen, age 43, has also been a member of Stavanger’s City Council and was his party’s candidate to be county mayor in Rogaland. His abrupt fall from grace brought his boss, Venstre leader Trine Skei Grande, to the verge of tears when she had to face questions about the rape charges on national TV Monday night.

She said neither Larsen nor the party itself had any choice but to relieve him of all duties tied to the party because the charges against him led to a loss of confidence. Grande said party leaders were now most concerned with “taking care of the young woman” involved and making sure she gets all the legal and medical help she needs, “and not least compassion from the party.”

The alleged rape occurred during Rogaland Venstre’s annual party meeting, which took place at the Ryfylke Fjordhotel at Sand during the weekend.  Police formally charged Larsen Monday night after a 17-year-old member of Venstre’s youth organization reported that Larsen had raped her at the hotel after the party’s program had ended Saturday night. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that alcohol is believed to have been consumed during the evening.

Helge Solum Larsen (center, in T-shirt) surrounded by party colleagues during last year's campaign against the construction of power lines in Hardanger. PHOTO: Venstre

Per A Thorbjørnsen, group leader for Venstre on Stavanger’s city council, said he was awakened by members of the youth organization, Young Venstre, about 2:45am on Sunday, shortly after the alleged rape. Thorbjørnsen told reporters that Larsen admitted he had sex with the 17-year-old girl but denies rape was involved.

“This is something that never should have happened. I’m very sorry about this,” Thorbjørnsen told reporters, stressing that the party was taking no position on Larsen’s guilt or innocence and adding that “now the police have to do their job.” An investigation is underway.

The rape charges are a huge blow to Venstre’s efforts to revive and rebuild itself after suffering a major fall in voter support in recent years. Larsen was among party leader Grande’s most important partners, along with Ola Elvestuen in Oslo, as she works to attract new voter support for a party that can play a pivotal role in government coalitions. It generally lands on the conservative side of Norwegian politics but also maintains a high environmental profile and can vote with more left-wing parties.

A political commentator for NRK noted that the charges against Larsen are also serious because they involve sex between a high-ranking party official and a teenager, because the alleged rape occurred during a party event, and because the charges can damage Venstre’s rebuilding efforts.

History of political scandal
The charges were announced just as the trial of another top politician for the Progress Party was getting underway, also in Stavanger, on charges of sexual misconduct and assault. The Progress Party has suffered other serious sex scandals but so have other political parties in Norway. Last fall, the mayor of Vågå for the Labour Party, Rune Øygard, was also charged with sexual assault and remains on sick leave while police investigate. In 2003, a top politician for the Christian Democrats was charged with rape and he was also stripped of party posts. He was later acquitted.

Larsen, who led Young Venstre from 1994 to 1997, has been a member of Stavanger’s city council since 1991. He was elected deputy party leader in 2010. Grande said his admission to hospital was tied to the rape charges but she declined to go into detail.

“We’re just trying to take care of one another when bad things happen,” Grande said. “And we have chosen to be open about this.” Grande said she also had spoken with the 17-year-old and that she was holding up well under the circumstances.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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