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Saturday, October 1, 2022

Defense minister resigns in shame

Norwegian Defense Minister Odd Roger Enoksen has had to resign his post, right in the middle of war in Europe and the biggest security threat facing Norway in decades. Enoksen  couldn’t fend off claims of sexual misconduct, and it’s left Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre with another crisis of confidence in his government.

Odd Roger Enoksen will no longer be representing Norway at NATO or in any other position, after resigning as defense minister on Saturday. PHOTO: Forsvarsdepartementet/Marita Isaksen Wangberg

Støre announced on Saturday morning that he had accepted Enoksen’s resignation, calling it both “necessary and correct.” After two separate reports in the past week of sexual harassment and misconduct several years ago, Støre decided that claims made by two women “are of a character that are not in line with the confidence needed to be a government minister.”

Støre, who leads Norway’s Labour Party, confirmed at a brief press conference that he had communicated that “directly” to Enoksen. “It is therefore correct that he apologizes and resigns,” Støre said. Enoksen, age 67, is a former leader of the Center Party, Labour’s government partner, and had ranked as the government’s oldest and most experienced member. He remained busy in his defense minister’s role until as late as yesterday, when he unveiled new projects and priorities tied to beefing up Norway’s defense in response to Russian aggression.

His sudden resignation under pressure is another blow to Støre’s Labour-Center government, which has lurched from one crisis to another since taking office last fall. In addition to dealing with the pandemic, record high electricity and fuel prices and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Støre’s own labour minister, Hadia Tajik, had to resign in January, after admitting to exploiting housing benefits for ministers and Members of Parliament. Støre acknowledged that a scandal around the defense minister was the last thing he needed, in the midst of a war and important NATO meetings. “I can only express regret over this,” Støre said. “I would gladly have been without this.”

Both cases of Enoksen’s harassment and sexual misconduct date back many years, to the 2000s when Enoksen was Center Party leader and a minister in earlier governments. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was the first to report that former Center Party politician Hilde Lengali had delivered a formal complaint against Enoksen. She had remained quiet for two decades and left politics, but remained bothered enough that after Enoksen returned to government power last fall, and suddenly was on TV and radio often in connection with Russia’s war on Ukraine, many bad memories came back. She filed a formal complaint last week.

It stemmed, she claimed, from when Enoksen had recently taken over as leader of the Center Party and said he would work towards helping her win one of the party’s seats in Parliament after the 2001 election. When he came to her hotel room during a party meeting in Bodø to discuss her future in the party, however, she claims he pushed her down on the bed. “All my confidence in him disappeared, also in myself, that I’d let myself be tricked,” she told NRK.

Odd Roger Enoksen in 2007, when he served as Norway’s Oil & Energy Minister and was involved with a ‘very young woman.’ PHOTO: Wikipedia

Asked why she didn’t report the incident, she said she thought it was “too embarrassing and that I’d been stupid” to agree to a meeting in her room. Enoksen told NRK he didn’t remember the hotel room encounter at all.

Then came a second incident, in which she said Enoksen entered the women’s shower room and found her naked after a joint men’s and women’s sauna session during another party meeting at a hotel in Trøndelag. “He told me that I looked more like a film star than a mother of five,” Lengali said. “I have never forgotten that, it was so crude.” Enoksen remembered that incident, and apologized, but denied to NRK that he stood between her and her towel. He also apologized, he claims, and said he’d only “stuck his head” into the women’s shower room, thinking she’d be ready to head for breakfast. He admitted his “crude” comment was “stupid,” claimed that he was now 20 years older and that it would be up to the party (specifically Center Party Secretary Knut Olsen) to decide whether her current complaint would have any consequences for his position as defense minister.

Then came a report from VG this weekend that Enoksen also had a sexual relationship with a high school student in 2005. She was 18, he was 50 and they’d met in their native Northern Norway before her class visited Parliament where he was an elected MP. When she moved to Oslo to study political science a year later, she contacted him and their relationship began. VG, which has seen years of her written documentation of the relationship, reported that both referred to him as her “sexual mentor,” that he introduced her to high-profile politicians, let her ride in his chauffeured government car and suggested he could get her a summer job at Parliament. They met in his office, in his ministerial apartment paid for by the government, and at a hotel.

“I felt special, that I’d been chosen by him,” the young woman, now in her 30s, told VG, “but then he pushed my own boundaries all the time.” She was highly interested in politics but never became active in the party and she eventually sought psychological help. She said their relationship had bothered her for 15 years, but she was afraid to report it for fear she wouldn’t be believed. When she heard about Lengali’s complaint to the Center Party, she decided to talk about the secret she’d kept for 15 years.

That led to another apology from Enoksen: “I want to apologize to those I have hurt. I have made several poor choices and evaluations, and want to issue an unconditional apology that my actions have made life more difficult for others.” He confirmed to VG that he was asked during the screening process for government ministers about whether he’d had any sexual relationships that could undermine his work and that he’d answered “yes, that I had been unfaithful (to his wife), that I’d had a relationship, but I didn’t go into detail. I viewed it as a private matter, not a ‘me-too’ case or a problem for the party.” Nor had there been any complaints filed against him at that time.

Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, shown here on election night last year, had said just two days ago that he had full confidence in Enoksen as defense minister. On Saturday Vedum, who also serves as Norway’s finance minister, said it was “necessary and correct” that Enoksen resign. PHOTO: Senterpartiet

Enoksen said Saturday morning that he had told current Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum he intended to resign as defense minister. Vedum had said on NRK’s Debatten program as late as Thursday night that he still thought Enoksen was “a good defense minister” in the midst of Russia’s war on Ukraine and the threat that also poses for Norway.

Vedum has since changed his mind, now telling NRK that it was “necessary and correct” that Enoksen resign. NRK reported that neither Vedum nor Støre had heard of any problems around Enoksen before they brought him into the government. The Center Party’s deputy leader Anne Beather Tvinnereim, however, and the party’s secretary general Olsen had been made aware of Lengali’s concerns about Enoksen in 2017, when revelations of “Me Too” scandals were flying, but no complaint was filed because Enoksen no longer had any role in the party and had left politics. Tvinnereim had also written in a text melding to Lengali in 2017 that “both you and I know that the Center Party, surely like most other parties, is full of dirt both in the past and present. Everything that can contribute to force through change is good, even though it’s uncomfortable when it’s going on…”

NRK aired Støre’s press conference live on Saturday morning, when he had to confirm that Norway now needs a new defense minister. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Lengali told NRK that she felt let down when Enoksen returned as a government minister last fall. Tvinnereim declined comment, referring questions to party secretary Olsen, who responded in a short email that there were no formal complaints against Enoksen when he was appointed. Olsen admitted that he’d been “oriented” four years ago “that there allegedly was an incident many years ago,” but no complaint was ever filed. Olsen apparently opted not to mention the Lengali incident to Vedum or Støre when Enoksen’s candidacy for the defense minister’s post came up.

Vedum was ultimately informed of Lengali’s complaint late last week, and Støre the next day. There still has been no formal complaint filed regarding the other woman, who has not been identified.

Støre expected people ‘to tell the truth’
Asked on Saturday whether the ministerial screening process was adequate, Støre said questions were asked. “There’s an expectation that people tell the truth in those conversations,” Støre said at the press conference. He declined to comment specifically on VG‘s report, but maintains Enoksen “should have shared” the relationship he’d had with the 19-year-old during his interviews for the minister’s job.

“I can’t guarantee for the lives folks have lived,” Støre said, stressing, though, that “direct, personal” questions were asked during the interview process. He said that Enoksen had displayed “poor judgement over time” and that there were concerns Enoksen had abused his power during his earlier ministerial period from 2005 to 2007, when he resigned from the government to move home to Northern Norway  and “spend more time with his family.”

Støre also said he was now working to appoint a new defense minister “as quickly as possible.” He maintained that Norway’s national security was “being taken care of, but of course, we must have an operative defense minister in place.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

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