MPs face stricter rules for travel

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Norway’s Parliament has imposed stricter accounting rules on MPs claiming travel expenses, just before another Progress Party politician was found to have submitted questionable compensation claims. The new rules require more documentation, but it’s still up to the politicians themselves to decide whether a trip and its costs can be justified.

Members of Parliament, pictured here at least year’s formal opening of the 2018-2019 session, have raised questions lately over their use of taxpayers’ money for travel and entertainment. At stake is public confidence in Norwegian politicians. PHOTO: Stortinget

Helge André Njåstad, a Member of Parliament for the Progress Party from Hordaland, is the latest politician to raise eyebrows over how he’s billed taxpayers for various trips within Norway that involved events within his family. Newspaper Aftenposten has written extensively about how MPs have spent millions over the past few years on entertainment and travel, and documented last fall how the Progress Party MP Mazyar Keshvari had claimed NOK 36,000 for trips he never took and as much as NOK 290,000 on undocumented travel. Keshvari faces criminal fraud charges.

Now Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) has reported hos Njåstad has charged the taxpayers for overnight stays at some of Norway’s best hotels during holiday periods. The trips have involved family members as well: Njåstad has had short job-related meetings in an area where he met family and then stayed, for example, at the exclusive Dr Holms Hotell in the mountain resort town of Geilo in the middle of the Easter holiday week, and boasted on Facebook how his son was getting very good at skiing. Family and friends of Njåstad were also staying at Dr Holms, and he rented a BMW to drive up to Geilo, also at taxpayer expense. The job-related reason for the trip to Geilo was given as meetings with an architecture firm and a real estate brokerage firm, allegedly in order to discuss work on a new planning and building law.

Helge André Njåstad addressing Parliament last year. Now he’s being challenged for charging the state for several trips he took that involved meetings with family and friends. PHOTO: Stortinget

Njåstad also combined alleged business during the summer of 2016 with pleasure and family on trips to Bergen, where he stayed with his son in the newly remodeled Hotel Norge, and to Østfold (just south of Oslo, where he lives in a state-funded apartment for MPs) where he spent the night with family at the popular beachfront spa hotel Støtvig in Larkollen. He submitted a bill for nearly NOK 2,675 for the latter trip, which demanded travel time of only around an hour from Oslo.

On Tuesday NRK reported that Njåstad met with a former mayor and the director of the posh Hotel Ullensvang on the Hardanger Fjord when his mother celebrated her 60th birthday at the hotel. Shortly afterwards Njåstad submitted a compensation claim for nearly NOK 3,000 to cover some of his costs for the trip to Ullensvang, alleging that it really was a trip demanded by his work as an MP, because he needed to discuss local business and municipal reform issues.

Njåstad may now regret that he posted several photos of himself and his family gathered around the Hotel Ullensvang’s swimming pool on August 28, 2016 and several photos of his son at a local go-cart facility with the text “thanks for a great weekend.” Njåstad then billed the state for all the road tolls, ferry fares and kilometers he drove in order to get to Ullensvang, where his mother celebrated her birthday. NRK reported three different versions of who initiated the meetings he had while at the hotel.

Helge André Njåstad (far right) was also part of the team laying the groundwork last fall for the current negotiations for a new, expanded government coalition that would include the Christian Democrats. Njåstad’s Progress Party has been part of the current conservative government since 2013. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Njåstad has defended all his travel expenses and the compensation he received for them, claiming the meetings he had were important and, allegedly, the main reason for his trips. He has indicated it was simply most practical to have such meetings when he also could celebrate his mother’s birthday, pick up his son in Geilo and, on another occasion, drive his family from their home in Hordaland to Oslo on holiday while he had a 30-45 minute meeting with a local mayor along the way. He then claimed compensation from the state for NOK 5,144 in expenses for the entire car trip. He denies he arranged the meetings in connection with family travel so that he could claim compensation and thereby reduce he own personal travel costs.

He claims all the Parliament’s rules for expense account filings at the time were followed and he doesn’t see anything wrong with charging the state for trips, even when they involved family members. “I think it’s important that we (MPs) travel around in Norway,” he told NRK on Tuesday. “It’s important that we meet folks (becasue) then the measures we take are better. I don’t think we should just sit in the office in Oslo and make decisions.”

More documentation required now
As of January 1, the Parliament’s administration is demanding more documentation of trips, including invitations, programs or copies of emails that can confirm meetings. If that’s not possible, the MP must provide a contact person who can confirm meetings and an agenda for them.

MPs are eligible for compensation of travel expenses without any advance approval. If the trip involves a “private errand,” the MP must cover extra costs, which Njåstad claims he did on his family trips. He did not claim compensation, for example, for their meals.

His travel claims, coming just after his party fellow Keshvari’s alleged fraud, have nonetheless been embarrassing for a party that long has criticized public officials’ use of taxpayer money. Morten Wold, another MP for the party who also serves as the Parliament’s 1st vice president, believes his colleague followed the rules at the time, and notes that there’s no “ordinary employer-employee relationship” between an MP and the Parliament. “An MP is really only responsible to his or her voters,” Wold told NRK. “There are 169 MPs here, and the vast majority of us manage to handle this in an exemplary fashion.”

Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, who also serves as Norway’s finance minister, has declined comment on Njåstad’s travel compensation claims. Wold insists the rules are good enough, “on the condition that all MPs show good judgment and have what’s best for the Parliament’s and our reputation in the backs of their minds.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund