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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Opposition calls for investigation of all government ministries

Opposition politicians in the Norwegian Parliament are calling for an investigation of all government ministries, following Audun Lysbakken’s resignation as minister for family and equality issues. Revelations of funding irregularities and conflicts of interest in his ministry have sparked suspicion that similar violations are occurring in others.

Lysbakken is still expected to be elected leader of the Socialist Left party (SV) this weekend, but he gave up his ministerial post in Norway’s Labour-led left-center government coalition after accepting responsibility for “mistakes made” in his ministry. His resignation is rooted in a controversial allocation to a group linked to SV’s youth group SU, but Lysbakken’s own closer look at practices within his ministry revealed more “mistakes” that all but forced his departure.

Questionable extra allocations
Most serious was the allocation of as much as NOK 10 million, possibly more, to a men’s resource center called Reform, during Lysbakken’s tenure as minister. The group had received funding for years, also from conservative governments well before Lysbakken’s time, but Lysbakken himself has had close personal ties to Reform and approved, as minister, extra funding allocations to the group.

One of the main reasons for his resignation Monday is his admission that he should have either declared himself inhabil (caught in a conflict of interest, and thus disqualified from approving the funding) or at least asked for a legal opinion of whether he should be disqualified.

Lysbakken also admitted that several e-mails and text messages tied to the other alleged funding irregularities had since been recovered, even though he earlier had said that all relevant documentation had been put forward. A review of ministry practices also revealed poor routines in registering documents and publicizing funding availability, which Lysbakken suggested may have gone on for years.

‘Bordering on corruption’
One professor, Petter Gottschalk at Norwegian Business School BI, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday that the “mistakes” in Lysbakken’s ministry border on corruption, or at least favoritism. Opposition politicians want to investigate the allegations of systematic funding irregularities.

“If it’s correct that there’s been systematic weakness (of routines) over time in Lysbakken’s former ministry, it raises suspicions that there are systematic mistakes tied to extra funding allocations in other ministries,” Anders Anundsen of the Progress Party told newspaper Aftenposten. Anundsen leads the Parliament’s powerful committee that launched the probe into the controversial funding that ultimately led to Lysbakken’s resignation.

Anundsen told Aftenposten that he wants the committee to send a letter, most likely to Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s office, asking for a full investigation of how extra funding allocations are handled by all government ministries. The Conservative Party, meanwhile, wants to have the state auditor (Riksrevisjonen) examine ministry practices.

‘Probe not necessary’
Stoltenberg is already resisting, saying each ministry is responsible for following the rules, and he doesn’t think a full investigation is necessary. Stoltenberg has said he “respected” Lysbakken’s decision to resign after admitting to mistakes made.

Earlier heads of what’s formally called the Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion, meanwhile, objected to Lysbakken’s implication of long-term, systematic funding irregularities within the ministry. “I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Laila Dåvøy of the Christian Democrats party, who held Lysbakken’s former ministerial post in Norway’s last non-socialist government coalition from 2001 to 2005, told Aftenposten. “I have never granted money to my own people, nor have I been in a conflict of interest. We had many organizations seeking funding. Among them was Reform, which is now in the spotlight. They did a good job and received funding in the normal manner.”

Lysbakken’s immediate predecessor and government colleague, Anniken Huitfeldt of the Labour Party who now serves as Minister of Culture, declined comment, while Valgerd Svarstad Haugland of the Christian Democrats she was unaware of any irregularities during her tenure in the late 1990s.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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