Justice minister paid too little tax

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Emilie Enger Mehl, Norway’s 28-year-old justice minister from the Center Party, has joined the list of top politicians who have unjustly benefited from their time in Parliament. Now Mehl faces a bill for back taxes.

Emilie Enger Mehl, shown here with Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold when she was first elected to Parliament in 2017. Now she’s justice minister and he’s finance minister, and she faces back taxes on the advantage attached to her free commuter apartment from 2017-2018. PHOTO: Senterpartiet/Ragne B Lysaker

“I have been made aware that I wasn’t taxed for the commuter apartment I had from October 2017 to July 2018, and have paid too little tax,” Mehl admittted in a message sent to the tax authorities (Skatteetaten) in late November. That’s when newspaper Aftenposten and other media were reporting almost constantly on examples of how Members of Parliament had misused and even exploited generous benefits they can enjoy regarding housing, transport and severance pay.

In Mehl’s case, reports Aftenposten, she voluntarily alerted the tax authorities but only after weeks of stories running in local media both before and during her first weeks as justice minister. She was among those who failed to have taxes withheld on the advantage she enjoyed by living in one of the Parliament’s many commuter apartments in Oslo. They’re made available to all MPs who otherwise live and represent districts farther than 40 kilometers from the capital.

Now she can claim a deduction
When she first won a seat in Parliament four years ago, she was still registered a living on her father’s farm at Åsnes Finnskog northeast of Kongsvinger. That qualified her for free but taxable housing in Oslo. In the summer of 2018, she reportedly bought an apartment in Elverum and could then deduct the costs of that housing from the commuter apartment benefit she enjoyed in Oslo, making it tax-free.

She has since asked that NOK 24,000 be added to her tax bill to cover taxes on the advantage of free housing in 2017-2018. Mehl, a lawyer herself, refused to be interviewed by Aftenposten, which has written most extensively about the Parliament’s now-controversial commuter housing benefit. She would only answer questions submitted in writing through the justice ministry’s communications department.

Asked how she, as a law school graduate who briefly worked for a major Oslo law firm, couldn’t understand in 2017 that her housing advantage was taxable, Mehl claimed she’d “been open” about her living situation when she was first elected to Parliament. “Based on the information I received, I wasn’t aware that this (the free apartment, including all utility bills) could be taxable.”

Blamed her ’employer’ for failing to withhold taxes
She preferred to blame “incorrect reporting” to tax authorities by her “employer,” the Parliament. She thinks Parliament’s administration should have known to withhold taxes from her annual pay as an MP of nearly NOK 1 million a year, not her. She says she informed both her own Center Party leader who’s now finance minister, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, and Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, about her tax situation before she was appointed justice minister.

Reaction on social media was sharp after Aftenposten revealed the justice minister’s own tax trouble. Vedum sees nothing wrong, however, with how long it took Mehl to inform tax authorities of her tax liability from four years earlier.

“I know how much she wants to do things correctly,” Vedum said in defending his party’s justice minister. “When she now knows her commuter apartment was taxable, she took the initiative herself to pay the tax she should.” Vedum, struggling himself with multiple issues as finance minister, said he has “full confidence” in her.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund