NAV scandal spoils prosecutor’s debut

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Just as he took over his new high-ranking post as Norway’s state prosecutor, Jørn Sigurd Maurud had to declare a conflict of interest. He won’t be able to have anything to do with the legal aftermath of Norway’s biggest welfare and judicial scandal ever, since he lives with the Labour Party politician who was in charge of Norway’s state welfare agency NAV when the trouble arguably began.

Jørn Sigurd Maurud has taken over as Norway’s new state prosecutor after Tor-Aksel Busch, but had to immediately declare a conflict of interest. PHOTO: Riksadvokaten

“I think this (the scandal that led to scores of Norwegians being wrongly convicted of welfare fraud) is terribly embarrassing, just awful,” Maurud told news bureau NTB. EU regulations allow what Norwegian law never has (welfare benefits even when the recipient is not physically present in Norway), but Norwegian officials and courts have failed to follow the EU regulations they should have for years.

It’s Maurud’s new office that must handle all the cases that now need to be reviewed and overturned. It was also his samboer (live-in partner) and fellow lawyer Hanne Bjurstrøm who was responsible back in 2011-2012, as the government minister in charge of social welfare issues, for implementing an EU measure that Norway was obliged to follow as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS). It clarified what had been the EU’s intent since Norway joined the EEA in 1994: Norwegians must remain eligible for sick pay and unemployment benefits also when they’re present in other EU/EEA member countries.

NAV, however, continued its practice under Bjurstrøm of denying benefits to anyone leaving the country, and seeking out and prosecuting those who did. Nearly 50 people were convicted and even jailed over the years, while thousands of others lost their benefits and were ordered to refund what had been paid out. For many, the practice resulted in financial ruin and public shame.

Bjurstøm there when ‘scandal began to roll’
Commentator Arne Strand wrote in newspaper Dagsavisen this week how “the scandal began to roll in 2012 when the EU’s welfare law was made part of Norwegian law by the Labour Party-led government headed by Jens Stoltenberg (who now heads NATO). Stoltenberg’s labour and welfare minister Bjurstrøm did not clearly inform the Parliament that people had a right to take their sick pay or unemployment benefits with them if they traveled within the EU/EEA.”

NAV continued to follow Norwegian law, and cracked down on the export of benefits as a form of welfare fraud. NAV’s pratice continued under the current Conservatives’-led government, even after the legal appeals organ for welfare recipients (Trygderetten) finally began to rule against NAV in 2017. Some young new attorneys at Trygderetten began to recognize the violations of the EU/EEA rules, but NAV continued to prosecute.

Former Labour Minister Hanne Bjurstrøm has been in a media storm before, like here when she headed off an oil industry lock-out in the North Sea and ordered compulsory arbitration in the industry’s conflict with oil service workers. PHOTO: Arbeidsdepartementet

On Tuesday Bjurstrom’s current successor, Labour and Welfare Minister Anniken Hauglie, publicly apologized for NAV’s illegal practice, promised compensation for those wrongly prosecuted by NAV and announced plans for an external investigation into the entire scandal. Bjurstrøm is expected to be among the many  to be questioned.

That would be awkward for her partner Maurud, whose formal title is Director General of Public Prosecutions, forcing his withdrawal from what will be one of his office’s biggest cases. He simply can’t be involved in handling the cases of those who may have suffered as a result of his partner’s action or inaction seven years ago.

Maurud noted himself that Bjurstrøm was the government minister in charge of NAV from October 20, 2009 until September 20, 2012, “and in that connection the responsible minister” regarding implementation of the EU measure that Norway misunderstood. That in turn is the misunderstanding that formed the foundation for the NAV scandal that left so many wrongly convicted.

Bjurstrøm became a partner in the Oslo law firm Arntzen de Besche in 2013, the same year Labour lost government power. She has been Norway’s ombud in charge of equality and discrimination issues since 2016.

‘Collective failure’
Justice Minister Jøran Kallmyr was left to appoint a special prosecutor to take over the case for Maurud. Kallmyr agreed that Maurud was inhabil (biased) in the case. “We’re doing all we can to clean up after this scandal,” Kallmyr said, admitting that his ministry was unaware of the scandal until just a few weeks ago. “This is all about a collective failure, weakness in every link,” Kallmyr told NTB.

Maurud, age 59, is otherwise claimed to be looking forward to what he will be able to do as state prosecutor. He’s a graduate of the University of Oslo law school and has worked as a lawyer in the foreign ministry, as a judge in Hedmark and as a lawyer in private practice for the large Oslo-based law firm Wikborg, Rein & Co. He became a prosecutor in 1995.

Justice Minister Kallmyr called Maurud “an experienced leader” who will now play an important role in developing the state prosecutor’s office’s “integrity and independence.” He’ll take over for the highly acclaimed Tor-Aksel Busch, who is now sorry to be leaving under the cloud created by the NAV scandal.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund