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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Center Party minister forced to resign

Ola Borten Moe, deputy leader of the Center Party, has been one of Norway’s most controversial politicians and government ministers for years. On Friday he had to call it quits, after admitting to breaking both government rules and state law, and becoming the latest minister to get caught in a major conflict of interest.

A chastened Ola Borten Moe had to face reporters at a nationally televised press conference Friday evening, and announce that he won’t only resign as government minister but also as a deputy leader of the Center Party. Nor will he seek re-election to Parliament in 2025. He will, however, need to serve out the remaining two years of his current term before leaving politics. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Moe’s mistakes and lack of good judgment made it impossible for him to continue, even though he’d hoped to “clean up” after himself and hang on to his post as Norway’s government minister in charge of research and higher eduation. As news spread of what he himself said were “terribly wrong” decisions regarding his personal investments and failure to evaluate them, he had no choice but to step down.

“I thought I could manage to clean up, but see now after the reaction today that it’s not possible,” Moe said at the hastily called press conference. “Through the day that became clear for me, my party leader and the prime minister.” He said he spoke with Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum (who’s also Norway’s finance minister) but not directly with Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, only with Støre’s office.

Støre later described Moe’s conflicts of interest as “extremely serious,” and noted that it’s critical Norwegians have confidence in their government. “The consequences that this case has for confidence in him and the government are not in line with him continuing as a member of the government. The conclusion was that he resign as minister. It’s a decision I support.”

Business news service E24 had reported earlier on Friday how Moe, who most recently has served as Norway’s government minister in charge of research and higher education, took part in a government meeting in January that involved its NOK 2.6 billion-kroner contract with ammunition producer Nammo. The contract marked Norway’s biggest investment in ammunition ever for its own defense, is part of the state’s military aid program to Ukraine, and attracted widespread attention. The contract was announced in January by Finance Minister Vedum and Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram, also of the Center Party.

Just a week before the government meeting on the contract, the Center Party’s Moe had paid more than NOK 400,000 for shares in the weapons and technology company Kongsberg Gruppen, which has a major stake in Nammo. Moe has money to invest: After serving as oil and energy minister in an earlier Labour-Center government, he worked and invested in the oil industry before Center returned to government power in 2021. As a member of government, Moe has also earned an annual salary of nearly NOK 1.6 million in addition to the various stock dividends that are now rolling in, not least from his stake in the Okea offshore oil firm.

Ola Borten Moe (second from left) was among those posing with American naval officers on board the huge US aircraft carrier that recently visited Oslo, along with his Center Party’s defense minister, Bjørn Arild Gram (far right). Just a few months earlier Moe bought shares in weapons producer Kongsberg, right in the middle of the war in Ukraine and breaking conflict-of-interest laws in the process. That has infuriated other politicians in Parliament. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

E24 further reported that Moe also broke rules aimed at preventing conflicts of interest by attending another government meeting on March 30, at which the government expanded its contract with Nammo. Moe has also admitted to other stock purchases in the past year that have violated government rules. They include investments in fertilizer and chemical producer Yara, in which the state also has a major stake, and Sparebank 1 SMN.

“This is an incredibly embarrassing situation, (and) a serious situation,” Moe admitted to state broadcaster NRK Friday afternoon. “It raises questions about my integrity as a member of government. It’s a situation I would gladly have avoided and I apologize in the strongest of terms.” He tried to explain his “intention and motivation” at his press conference, claiming he simply was looking for “long-term” investments for his children.

All members of government are expected to be extremely careful regarding their personal investments, and must not own or trade shares that could weaken confidence in them, the government itself or government ministries. The state economic crime unit Økokrim has already opened an investigation into Moe’s investments, as has the Parliament’s disciplinary committee.

After serving as Oil & Energy minister in an earlier Labour-Center government, and announcing plans here in Hammerfest to open up more of the Barents Sea to oil and gas development in 2013, Moe went on to invest in the oil business himself before returning to government in 2021. Now he’s in trouble over how he’s further invested his earnings. PHOTO: Olje- og energi departementet

Moe was also apologizing and admitting mistakes to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday. “Okea, a company in which it’s always been known that I have an ownership stake, began to generate dividends,” he told DN. “I thought that placing them in large, Norwegian industrial companies that are well known and have many owners was a fine way to do that.”

He also maintained that the companies in which he invested operate outside the areas for which he now has constitutional responsibility, as minister of research and higher education. “It didn’t occur to me that the government makes decisions that affect these companies directly and indirectly,” he told DN. Asked whether he’d sought any advice before buying shares, he replied: “No, I of course should have.”

Moe now becomes the third government minister in the current Labour-Center government to admit to conflicts of interest just in the past month. Anette Trettebergstuen and Tonje Brenna of the Labour Party have both run into trouble for appointing friends to various public boards, and Trettebergstuen immediately resigned as culture minister because some of her appointments involved paid positions. Brenna remains as education minister but also faces a parliamentary investigation.

DN also recently reported that Moe appointed an “old acquaintance” late last year to be board leader of the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI. Moe claims to have an external evaluation that the appointment did not involve a conflict of interest, but he has so far denied to share it. The acting communications director for Moe’s ministry called it an “internal document” that’s “normally” not open for public review.

Ola Borten Moe was also deputy leader of the Center Party along with current party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum (left) when former leader Liv Signe Navarsete (center) tried to mount a more offensive and united front. Splits were visible, though, and relations deteriorated. PHOTO: Senterpartiet

He already has a long history of controversy, from showing up with a bruised face while serving as a minister in the 2000s, to being part of a group of four Center Party men (including current Defense Minister Gram) who went off on a hytte weekend that resulted in charges of sexual harassment of former Center Party leader Liv Signe Navarsete. One of the men sent Navarsete an obscene text message after a long period of political infighting. None of the men has ever admitted to sending the message, and Støre, after negotiations with Vedum (who had tried to settle the harassment dispute), nonetheless accepted both Gram and Moe into his new minority coalition government.

The Center Party harassment issue resurfaced earlier this month, when economist and author Helle Stensbak wrote in newspaper Aftenposten that it still raises conflicts of interest since Gram as defense minister is handling ongoing charges of sexual harassment in the military. Stensbak also claimed that the incident tarnished the integrity and credibility of both Moe and Gram. “How can Gram deal with sexual harassment in the defense department when he didn’t manage to do so with his own gang (of friends)?” she wrote.

Others are raising issues of whether Moe is now guilty of insider trading tied to his share purchases as well, and what’s been discussed in government meetings. Moe insisted he’s not: “I haven’t had information that hasn’t been made publicly available at the time I bought shares,” Moe said.

Moe has a history of controversy but wouldn’t comment on an unauthorized biography of him when he was still Oil & Energy Minister. PHOTO: Fagforlag

Law professor Hans F Marthinussen told DN that Norway’s white-collar crime agency will need to settle the insider trading questions, “there’s no alternative. The time line we have here means they should investigate insider trading. We can’t live with people in the government apparatus who misuse insider information, so we must get a clarification.”

Moe isn’t likely to be missed, meanwhile, by the research and academic community. A recent survey showed that only 1 percent of academics polled think his Center Party is best at education issues. Moe has no academic degree himself yet wanted to take power away from the boards running Norway’s universities. He was at the heart of a funding crisis involving Norway’s research council and fired its board. Students named him “persona non grata” for his decision to start charging full tuition to foreign students from outside Europe and allegedly failing to understand students’ challenges. He vowed a “total makeover” of the education sector this year, slashed funding for major construction projects and literally told university leaders that “the party’s over.” He also tried to limit the use of English and promote more Norwegian in both teaching and research.

By Friday evening, Prime Minister Støre was himself under fire for his failure to comment and act more swiftly on Moe’s admissions of rule- and law-breaking. It set off more criticism from opposition politicians that Støre’s government leadership is weak. “This case weakens Støre’s authority as head of the government,” claimed Progress Party leader Sylvi Listhaug. She also said it was “disappointing” that Moe, as “an experienced government minister, could make this kind of mistake. It’s another serious case of a minister who doesn’t understand his own role.”

Other party leaders on both the left and right were calling for Moe’s immediate resignation by mid-afternoon. “Sorry, he has to go,” said Ingrid Liland of the Greens Party, while Dag-Inge Ulstein of the Christian Democrats also demanded that Moe step down. “That a government minister would invest in weapons and ammunition shares in the middle of a war is as bad as can be,” Ulstein said. The conflict of interest issue in his view was almost secondary.

Lars Haltbrekken of the Socialist Left Party said the case must be handled in the parliament’s disciplinary committee, and called it “extremely serious.” Not only is it “incredible that Moe broke the rules, it also had to do with his own financial gain.

Peter Frølich of the Conservatives, who heads the committee, said the case would be investigated. “Ola Borten Moe has in this case exhibited extremely bad judgment,” Frølich said. “He has broken laws and rules that are formed to maintain confidence in our democratic institutions.”

They’ll still need to serve with Moe in Parliament for the remaining two years of his term. Moe said that after that, he’ll leave politics. It’s expected he’ll continue working on his farm in Trøndelag, and in the oil business. Berglund



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