Tonje Brenna survived the terrorist attack on her Labour Party 12 years ago, when a right-wing extremist set off a massacre at a Labour summer camp on the island of Utøya. Now Brenna, Norway’s education minister and Labour’s newly elected deputy leader, hopes her political career will also survive after she violated conflict of interest rules.
Brenna admitted this week to exhibiting some extremely poor judgment and landing in conflicts of interest: Despite warnings, even from the man involved, she appointed her good friend Frode Elgesem to the board of a foundation that receives funding from her ministry. Elgesem served as her attorney in the aftermath of the terrorist attack and the two have since had, in Brenna’s own words, “a very special relationship.”
To make matters worse, the foundation also passes on funding to Utøya AS, the camp and conference firm for the terror-struck island. Among those in charge of Utøya AS is Martin Henriksen, Brenna’s former domestic partner, and two other close friends of Brenna.
Elgesem himself had warned her about potential conflicts of interest back in March, also over the ministry’s support for the Rafto Foundation where he leads its board. Brenna failed to follow up on them.
The ministry has now concluded that she was indeed inhabil (unqualified to appoint Elgesem) in connection with any issues involving Utøya AS and a joint project involving Utøya AS, the July 22 Center in Oslo and the Wergeland Center, where Elgesem is on its board.
After newspaper VG picked up on the conflicts, Brenna also declared herself as being unqualified to deal with issues involving Elgesem. She was cleared of any conflicts of interest involving the national support group for victims of the terrorist attack on Utøya.
Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party had been especially proud of appointing Brenna and another survivor of the terrorist attack, Trade Minister Jan Christian Vestre, to his new Labour-Center government in 2021. Støre described Brenna’s mistakes as “serious” but insisted he still has confidence in her, especially after she’d publicly and quickly apologized for her negligence. She admitted at a press conference on Tuesday that she’d made grave misjudgments and acted too late to correct them.
Parliamentary probe underway
On Wednesday the Parliament’s disciplinary committee launched a probe of the conflicts of interest, and asked Brenna to provide a written account of the predicament in which she’s landed. Committee leader Peter Frølich of the Conservatives stressed that its query into the case isn’t a formal investigation, and noted that Brenna, age 35, herself had called him earlier this week to admit to her “lack of judgment.” He added that they had “a good conversation.” Others on the committee have stressed that it’s “fundamental” for elected officials to constantly evaluate their qualifications in order to maintain public trust.
“Tonje Brenna has made mistakes that raise doubts about her attentiveness and her ability to make evaluations,” editorialized newspaper Aftenposten, “but she has also shown an ability to be honest and apologize without reservation. That’s always a starting point for those who need to raise themselves up again after making mistakes in politics.”