Politicians caught exploiting benefits

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Norwegian voters’ longstanding confidence in their elected officials is being put to the test, just a week after the parliamentary election. Several Members of Parliament have been caught exploiting generous state benefits, none moreso than Kjell Ingolf Ropstad, who felt compelled to resign over the weekend as both a government minister and leader of the Christian Democrats Party.

Kjell Ingolf Ropstad, shown here in Parliament, will keep his seat as an elected official but resigned as leader of the Christian Democrats Party and as a member of the outgoing Conservative government. He said he will work to regain public confidence after exploiting generous state benefits. PHOTO: Stortinget

Ropstad, who’s most recently been in charge of state aid for poor children and troubled families, was found to have lived free at taxpayer expense for the past 11 years and then tried to cut his own tax bill. The 36-year-old Ropstad, who went into politics straight from university, apologized publicly and has promised to repay what may amount to several hundred thousand kroner in back taxes. He still faces punitive action and extra fines.

Newspaper Aftenposten has reported over the past few weeks on how Ropstad and several other MPs have exploited the Parliament’s generous offer of housing for those commuting to Oslo from outlying districts. Things got worse for Ropstad after Aftenposten could document how he also actively sought to avoid paying tax on the economic advantage he enjoyed by not having any housing costs in his hometown in Agder, southern Norway. He then claimed he was covering some costs of his childhood home, but never actually did.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), meanwhile, has reported extensively over the past few weeks on how other MPs have exploited the Parliament’s generous severance pay provisions for those who lose their seats in Parliament without having a job to which they can return. Some have received up to six months of full pay, even though they had set up consulting firms that started generating revenue or postponed start dates at new jobs in order to take a break at taxpayer expense.

Abuse of the intention behind the politicians’ benefits has extended across party lines and severely shaken what long was considered to be an honour-based system. The abuses have come just after some other MPs were caught cheating on their travel expense accounts, to the degree that some have faced criminal charges and jail terms.

Norwegian politicians earn well above average salaries in Norway, and enjoy generous pension plans and other benefits. Members of Parliament currently earn around NOK 1 million (USD 120,000) a year, government ministers earn NOK 1.4 million and both the prime minister and president of the Parliament earn NOK 1.7 million. In addition come all their other benefits, claims for which are based mostly on information provided by the politicians themselves.

Tone Wilhelmsen Trøen, president of the Norwegian Parliament, defends politicians’ generous salaries and benefits. She admits much of their compensation is based on an honour system that’s been abused, prompting an upcoming review of the benefits system. PHOTO: Stortinget

“We depend on our MPs using benefits in line with their intention, and on the information they provide us with,” the parliament’s president, Tone Wilhelmsen Trøen, told newspaper Klassekampen just before the election, when media coverage of abuse was building up. She defended MPs’ need “to be compensated for what it costs to do their jobs, to be out meeting people and organizations.” She claimed that MPs’ and ministers’ salaries are “in line with salary developments in society and business … and if you’re voted into Parliament from Finnmark or Vestlandet, and live more than 40 kilometers outside of Oslo, a commuter apartment will be provided. That’s so that everyone can do their jobs regardless of their own personal economy.”

Trøen also claimed the Parliament’s administration offers guidance and advice and conducts regular controls. All travel expenses must now be “thoroughly documented,” she said, adding, however, that her office will now review its own routines and reevaluate some of the benefits themselves, with an eye to whether they function in line with intentions.

Rules claimed to be ‘unclear’
Several people including Elisabeth Thoresen of a group concerned with welfare benefits for Norwegians have noted that if such abuse was found among citizens receiving welfare payments, they’d be reported to police immediately. It’s possible Ropstad of the Christian Democrats Party will still face police charges, for failing to underreport income. Aftenposten estimated he has paid “at least” NOK 680,000 too little in tax over the past 10 years.

Ropstad has claimed the tax rules were unclear, and interpreted differently by the Parliament’s administration and the Office of the Prime Minister. The bottom line his case, however, is that even though he has lived in Oslo since arriving as a student in 2005, he remained registered as living at his parents’ home in Agder. That qualified him, after he won his first seat in Parliament in 2009, for residence in an apartment owned by Parliament, which also covered all additional costs such as electricity, heating, maintenance fees, telephone and Internet connections. All the while he earned his relatively high MP’s salary, and later the even higher ministerial salary, without having all the standard costs of living that most people have. He could save lots of his politicians’ pay, with Aftenposten reporting that he did finally buy his own home in Oslo for around NOK 12 million last year. Both he and his family are now registered as living in Oslo.

‘Very sorry’
After two weeks in the media spotlight, Ropstad said he was “very sorry” for what he’d done and for the decisions he’d made. He claimed he’d been “uncertain” about the rules, and had received mixed signals about what was right and wrong, but admitted he should have reported that he paid no expenses at his parents’ home. He said he would repay all tax owed over the years.

“I understand that I have disappointed many,” he claimed, but he denied his tax avoidance and alleged abuse of commuter housing were behind his party’s poor showing at last week’s election. He remains a Member of Parliament and said he would “fight for the Christian Democrats’ politics there, regardless.”

The Ropstad case, along with a string of those involving other MPs and former government ministers who’ve exploited housing, expense account and severance pay benefits, has raised questions about whether Norwegians’ traditionally high levels of confidence in their elected officials is justified. In August, a new survey of public confidence carried out by research firm Respons Analyse (Tillitsundersøkelsen), indicated that fully 78 percent of those questioned had high confidence in Parliament and 69 percent had the same in the government. That was record high, even after a year of Corona-related restrictions.

Raising doubts about integrity
Newspapers Aftenposten, DN and Dagsavisen have been among those editorializing about how the recent exploitation, however, raises doubts about politicians’ integrity. “Are they serving as our ombudsmenn, or are they elected to enrich themselves and mount their own powerful careers?” queried Dagsavisen.

It hastened to add that while politicians can be bashed, also in Norway, “there’s reason to believe that we have had a tradition of hard-working elected officials with good consciences in Norway, who have done a good job for their voters. That has made Norway a society with a high degree of confidence between the people and their leaders. There a limit, however, to how many political scandals can be tolerated.”

DN editorialized that more control is needed, both within the Parliament’s adminstration and the government’s. It stressed that the vast majority of Norwegian politicians “behave in a proper manner and can be trusted. Those who misuse benefits don’t only cost society money, they undermine confidence in the entire political establishment. It’s important to tackle that as quickly as possible.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund