Opposition politicians and several legal experts remained dissatisfied after the justice ministry cleared Trade Minister Monica Mæland of conflict of interest charges late last week. Mæland, the ministry ruled, was impartial when she appointed her friend and former ministerial colleague Thorhild Widvey as chairman of Statkraft.
Mæland stirred criticism and questions earlier this summer when she replaced the incumbent chairman of state-owned energy firm Statkraft, Olav Fjell, with Widvey. Mæland and Widvey are known to be personal friends as well as top political colleagues in the Conservative Party, and Mæland was quickly suspected of engaging in patronage and cameraderie. Widvey had been replaced herself as a government minister in charge of culture and sports as part of a cabinet shake-up in December. As often happens in Norwegian politics, she soon re-emerged in a well-paid position that’s a political appointment.
Mæland’s choice of Widvey, at a time when Fjell wanted to continue in the post, also left her accused of hypocrisy. She and other Conservatives had accused one of her predecessors from the Labour Party, Trond Giske, of wrongfully appointing political allies and friends when he held the post as government minister in charge of business and trade, and now, they claimed, Mæland was doing the same thing. She had also claimed she’d had no need to ask for a legal evaluation of her impartiality, downplaying her personal relationship with Widvey.
The criticism prompted her to change her mind and ask for an evaluation. On Friday, the Justice Ministry declared that Mæland was indeed habil (impartial) when she appointed Widvey, having only met Widvey socially since the Conservatives-led government coalition took power in 2013. Mæland was relieved, claiming that the new board of Statkraft she has appointed is “extremely competent, with lots of leadership experience, good insight into Norwegian business” and several other attributes.
Law professors continue to raise questions, however, and point out the difference between legal impartiality and how the public views impartiality from an ethical point of view. In the latter view, they argue the public will still view Mæland as having appointed one of her friends and colleagues. Mæland herself admitted, after having to reveal text messages she exchanged with Widvey that featured smiley faces and were signed with “hugs,” that she should have handled the process better.
The political opposition in Parliament also remained dissatisfied. MP Hadia Tajik, a lawyer herself, said Mæland showed “poor judgment” in the case and should have immediately requested an evaluation of her impartiality before appointing Widvey. The appointment, it was revealed, had also been brewing for months before it was announced and Widvey seemed assured she’d get the job, writing about “when” she would be appointed as Statkraft’s new board leader instead of “if.”
The text messages “raise questions about how such an expectation had been created,” Tajik told NRK. “What was behind the contact with Widvey that she had an expectation she would be appointed by Monica Mæland? That’s a central question.”
It remained unclear whether it would be answered. Mæland and the government coalition clearly want to put the controversy behind them and move on. The parliament’s disciplinary committee, however, had questions, too, suggesting Mæland may be called on to answer them, just months after she’s been working with the committee as it investigates corruption at Norway’s many state-controlled companies.