Drama at Stortinget ends in resignation

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UPDATED: The new and suddenly embattled president of the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget), Eva Kristin Hansen, had earlier refused to give up her second-most powerful position in Norway, even after breaking the Parliament’s own rules and exploiting its housing benefit. After a dramatic day that hit a climax when police announced Thursday evening they’d be investigating possible fraud by unnamed Members of Parliament, she changed her mind.

Eva Kristin Hansen wore her bunad (national costume) when she presided over the ceremonial opening of Parliament for the first time last month. Now she’s decided to resign, after news that the police would be investigating violations of the Parliament’s own rules to which Hansen had admitted after they were revealed in media reports. PHOTO: Stortinget

“This evening the Oslo Police District let it be known that it has been asked to investigate six unnamed Members of Parliament following reports in the media,” Hansen stated in a press release. “I take it for granted that I’m one of them.”

“I think it would be intolerable for the Parliament to have a president who is under police investigation,” Hansen continued. “I have therefore contacted my party leader (Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party) and the leader of our delegation in Parliament (Rigmor Aasrud) and told them that I will resign as the Storting’s President.”

She claimed she would have no further comment, after a long day spent in a crisis meeting with leaders of all parliamentary delegations. Hansen claims she was “very sick” during most of the three years, from 2014 to 2017, when she still had access to one of the Parliament’s commuter apartments. They’re meant for MPs who live at least 40 kilometers outside of Oslo. Hansen, who represented voters in her home district of Trøndelag, had, however, married and both moved and bought into her new husband’s home in Ski, only 29 kilometers south of Oslo, in 2014. She didn’t inform the Parliament that she was actually living in Ski until 2017, when she also finally changed her legal address. That meant she maintained an extra home in Oslo for three years, at taxpayer expense, to which she was not entitled. She also has admitted to using the Parliament’s car service to commute between Ski and Oslo.

It was just last week that the president of the Parliament was escorting the king of the Netherlands during a state visit. This week Eva Kristin Hansen (far right) landed in a heap of trouble, and ultimately felt compelled to resign her powerful post. PHOTO: Stortinget

Hansen blamed her wrongdoing on personal family problems and poor health during the closed-door session on Thursday with the leaders of all 10 parliamentary delegations. Many were reportedly sympathetic, but few could understand how she could claim that she’d “misunderstood” the rules for use of commuter apartment, since she’d been among those formulating them. She also refused to resign, saying she was still ready to serve as president and even “clean up” after several other MPs also claimed to have “misunderstood” or “misinterpreted” the Parliament’s generous housing benefit, too, and wrongly benefitted from it.

Now they all face having to repay large sums based on the value of their use of the rental units, at least NOK 380,000 in Hansen’s case, according to newspaper Aftenposten. They also face tax claims, since hardly any MPs, even those who qualified for commuter apartments, had taxes on their housing benefit deducted from their pay, which amounts to nearly NOK 1 million a year.

The situation late Thursday afternoon initially left all the MPs in Parliament to decide whether they still had confidence in Hansen and, if not, to hold an election to choose a new president. Hansen had also been poised to head an evaluation of all benefits enjoyed by Norway’s top politicians, which wasn’t going to probe individual cases of misuse, only “move forward” with new benefits rules that would be more clear. That wouldn’t have revealed her own misuse, which Trøndelag newspaper Adresseavisen revealed instead.

Now, reports Aftenposten, the state auditor general will be involved in an external commission’s evaluation, and examine the Parliament’s rules that Hansen and several other top politicians claimed to have “misunderstood.” There’s also been a lot of other benefit exploitation at Parliament lately, regarding severance pay and trumped-up expense account claims in addition to misuse of the commuter apartments.

At stake has been the credibility of the politicians in which Norwegians must have the most confidence, and the confidence that Members of Parliament must have in their president, who ranks second only to the monarch and ahead of the prime minister in Norway. Public confidence in their leaders, which has ranked high in Norway for years, has also been waning among Norwegians even before this autumn’s scandals emerged.

Multiple calls had gone out for Hansen’s resignation, or for her to at least “evaluate her own position” since news of her own rule-breaking hit Tuesday night. Law professors have claimed her case is more serious than those of other MPs because she withheld information from Parliament, and knew she’d lose her commuter housing benefit if she’d reported that she’d in reality moved close to Oslo in 2014.

In the crisis meeting with all the parliamentary leaders, she claimed to have “spoken a lot” about her private life and why she made the choices she did regarding her legal residence. Asked why she hadn’t “understood” that she broke the rules for use of commuter housing, she repeated that her legal address between 2014 and 2017 was still in Trondheim. She claimed she hadn’t  changed that, to her new husband’s home in Ski just south of Oslo, for “family reasons” that involved buying out her new mother-in-law’s share so that he could buy a car.

She refused to go into more detail, but added that she also told the parliamentary delegation leaders how she’d been “very ill” from October 2015 to August 2017, saying her right arm had been “seriously injured” and required three major operations. She then spent little time in Parliament and most of it at her new home in Ski. In 2017, she claims she grew weary of a nomadic lifestyle with rented accommodation in Trondheim, the parliament’s apartment in Oslo and her home in Ski. She then officially registered her residence in Ski and gave up the commuter apartment.

She claimed her “conversation” with all the parliamentary leaders was “very fine” and that she’d offered to address Parliament as a whole on the issue, but was told that was not necessary. Instead she was to provide a written account of her folly. Asked whether she had considered resigning, she said had not, “but I am of course dependent on the Parliament’s confidence to remain sitting, that’s clear.  I have said I am willing to continue as president,” but others must evaluate whether they have confidence in her.

That left all the Members of Parliament to decide on the issue, until police intervened Thursday night. Ironically enough, the MPs had just elected her six weeks ago to help redeem the national assembly after all the other cases of benefits exploitation. Suddenly they were in a situation that if at least 20 percent (34 of the Parliament’s 169 members) demanded a new president, a new election would be held. That looked likely: The issue had already united, oddly enough, the far right Progress Party and the far left Reds Party, which, along with the Greens Party already yielded 32 members expressing a lack of confidence in Hansen.

MP Henrik Asheim, leader of the Conservatives’ Parliamentary delegation, said the MPs “can’t take sad stories into consideration” when making a decision on the fate of a president of Parliament. He and his party colleagues still wanted to know how she could misunderstand rules that she was part part of making, and said they’d wait with a decision on a new election until they evaluate Hansen’s written account of her rule-breaking.

Hansen’s own Labour Party quickly and perhaps predictably had still expressed  confidence in her, even before all the details of her rule-breaking were known. The Center Party, which shares government power with Labour, was relatively quiet on the issue while Socialist Left (SV) leader Audun Lysbakken wanted to wait until he and his party colleagues had read her written account. SV is currently in thorny and important budget negotiations with both Labour and Center, with the Hansen drama thrown in as an unexpected distraction.

Liberal Party leader Guri Melby told news bureau NTB that it’s “a difficult situation for us all when cases come along that weaken our reputation among the public.” She had said it was “too early” to draw any conclusions until Hansen’s written account is in hand. The Christian Democrats, who’ve just been through a similar scandal with their own leader who had to resign, had expressed much the same.

Norway’s economic crime unit Økokrim, meanwhile, was known to be following the drama closely because of the alleged benefits exploitation, possible fraud and even tax evasion. “We can’t comment on specific cases,” Økokrim chief Pål Lønseth told NRK Thursday afternoon, but added that “cases around the commuter housing issue are closely tied to tax consequences, and we have a tight dialog with tax authorities.” Later that evening, police announced they’d investigate, Hansen changed her mind and announced she’d step down.

That’s a relief for Parliament and the new Labour-Center government, both of which face other challenges running the country amidst difficult state budget negotiations. Prime Minister Støre said it was “correct” for Hansen to resign her post: “I know that this case is painful for her, and she is very sorry, but I think it’s correct that she now step aside as Storting’s president.”

MP Rigmor Aasrud, who heads Labour’s delegation in Parliament said she thinks the case has been very difficult, not least for her colleague Hansen. “It’s also important that we now get to the bottom of all these cases” about alleged misuse of MPs’ benefits, Aasrud said.

Opposition politicians like Progress leader Listhaug said Hansen was “wise” to resign, and that she “couldn’t see this ending any other way. At the same time I understand the difficult situation she’s in with her family.”

Sofie Marhaug of the Reds Party, which had called for Hansen’s resignation, also supported Hansen’s decision. “It was the only thing to do,” said Marhaug, adding that ordinary Norwegians caught cheating on welfare benefits often land in jail. “We should all be equal under the law, and now that she’s under police investigation, her resignation was unavoidable.”

MP Svein Harberg of the Conservative Party, who serves as the Parliament’s vice president, will step in as acting president until a new one is elected to replace Hansen. A five-member election committe will now select a new presidential candidate from the Labour Party, which ranks as largest in Parliament. State broadcaster NRK reported that Labour’s leadership will make the actual selection, likely to be someone with a solid record and possibly who has never used one of the parliament’s commuter apartments.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund