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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Parliament leaders ‘broke own rules’

Olemic Thommessen, president of the Norwegian Parliament and therefore second only to the monarch as head of state, has come under another torrent of criticism over the Parliament’s troubled and expensive expansion project. He’s fending the criticism off once again, and ignoring any calls for his resignation.

The two leaders of the Norwegian Parliament, Ida Børresen and President Olemic Thommessen, have come under heavy criticism over their handling of a major construction project that’s costing taxpayers NOK 700 million than budgeted. PHOTO: Stortinget

The project involves construction of a new entrance tunnel to the Parliament building’s (Stortinget’s) underground garage and a new post- and delivery terminal under Wessels Plass, the square between the Parliament and Prinsens gate 26. The Prinsens gate building, which contains parliamentary offices, is also undergoing major renovation.

Project costs have ballooned from a few hundred million kroner to NOK 1.8 billion, according to the state budget for 2017, and caused huge disruption in the entire area south of the Parliament. Now the Office of the State Auditor General (Riksrevisjonen) has concluded that the Parliament’s leadership, headed by Thommessen and top administrator Ida Børresen, broke their own purchasing rules and failed to follow the state’s procedures for major building projects. Thommessen and Børresen also opted to take on responsibility for the project themselves instead of delegating it to state property agency Statsbygg.

‘Considerable weaknesses’
The State Auditor General cited “considerable weaknesses” in planning the project and carrying it out. “Independent of the mistakes made by suppliers, the weakness in the Parliament’s own follow-up of the project is an important reason for the strong cost increase,” declared Karl Eirik Schjøtt-Pedersen of the Labour Party, deputy leader of the state auditor’s collegium, which carried out the study of the project. The state auditor general himself, Per-Kristian Foss of the Conservatives Party, had a conflict of interest in the case and could not lead the study as he usually does, because he served as vice-president of the Parliament in its administrative leadership until 2013, two years after the planning of the project began. That’s why Schjøtt-Pedersen, who has since left Parliament, had to take over.

The Parliament’s major expansion and renovation project turned this area south of the Parliament into what neighbours called “a huge mess” that created disruption for the past few years. Now, after huge budget overruns and delays, the project is expected to be completed by the fall of next year, October 2018. PHOTO: Stortinget

Schjøtt-Pedersen said on behalf of the study group that it was “problematic” that the Office of the Parliament’s President, led by Thommessen, didn’t make sure they had the necessary capacity and comeptence to plan and carry out “such a large and complex building project.” That led to budget overruns of at least NOK 700 million since Thommessen, a veteran of the Conservative Party, assumed his post in 2013. The auditors claimed the “strong increase” in costs can “only partially be clarified by the project’s change in character.” Better quality control “could have revealed weaknesses,” while an expansion of the project’s contract did not follow purchasing rules. Nor were Members of Parliament properly informed of the project’s status, meaning that Parliament approved funding allocations based on a lack of information.

“The Parliament’s administrative leadership has put more emphasis on quick completion and the building’s functions than on limiting costs,” Schjøtt-Pedersen said. “There’s been a lack of evaluation and a lack of quality control.”

Thommessen has earlier defied criticism, also on other issues, and blamed most of the building project problems on the consulting firm hired to oversee the project, Multiconsult, which in turn led to legal conflicts between the Parliament and the firm. While Thommessen claimed in a press release on Tuesday that he and his colleagues are “taking the criticism seriously,” and “will take the initiative” to make sure that rules are followed in the future, he continued to blame Multiconsult and even noted that the State Auditor’s report raised questions.

Fires back at State Auditor
“I have registered that the State Auditor only partially gets into the reasons for the increase in costs,” Thommessen claimed. “The auditors say themselves that they could have portrayed the cost overruns better. That means that important aspects of the project are not addressed in the report.”

That includes the conflict with Multiconsult. “By not portraying the consequences of Multiconsult’s deficient work more closely, I think the State Auditor only partially delivers on its assignment.” Newspaper VG, however, has earlier reported that the lawsuit against Multiconsult only demands compensation of NOK 67 million, less than 10 percent of the largest cost overruns.

Thommessen insisted the building project is now being managed well and proceeding as planned, albeit delayed. It remains unclear whether that will satisfy his critics both in and out of Parliament, some of whom have suggested he resign. Thommessen dismissed such suggestions during an interview with Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Tuesday evening, and he has also supported his administrator Børresen, who has mostly declined comment on what media have called a major building scandal.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund



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