Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt remained under a cloud of suspicion heading into the weekend, even after Norway’s economic crimes unit opted against launching a police investigation into her admitted conflicts of interest. Critics claim Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre is protecting her and she still faces questioning by the Parliament’s disciplinary committee over her husband’s investments in companies tied to the state.
“A probe of her violations of conflict of interest rules continues with full strength,” Member of Parliament Grunde Almeland of the Liberal Party, who’s in charge of the probe into Huitfeldt’s violations, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday. He said committee members will gather next week to evaluate “new questions” regarding her violations of rules aimed at keeping state officials impartial. Huitfeldt hasn’t specified them herself and still claims she didn’t know which companies her husband, businessman Ola Petter Flem, was actively investing in while she’s been serving as foreign minister.
His investments are believed to have compromised her impartiality and possibly made her party to insider information. Among them were purchases and sales of stock in Norwegian defense contractor Kongsberg. Huitfeldt has been involved in major state contracts with Kongsberg tied to Norway’s military aid to Ukraine, and one of her former government colleagues had to resign this summer after trading Kongsberg shares himself. Flem has also bought and sold stock in Norske Skog, Grieg Seafood, Lerøy Seafood, Norwegian Air, Odfjell Drilling, Aker Solutions, Rec Silocon, Yara International (in which the state owns a large stake itself) and Veidekke since Huitfeldt was named foreign minister in October 2021.
The chief of Norway’s economic crimes unit Økokrim has declared himself incapable of handling her case because he and Huitfeldt have been former government colleagues and they worked together forming some of their Labour Party’s own regulations. When Økokrim confirmed this week that it would not investigate her violations of impartiality rules, its assistant chief, Inge Svae-Grotli, was left to explain the surprise decision.
He claimed Huitfeldt’s case differs from that of her former fellow government minister Ola Borten Moe because he was trading stock himself. “Huitfeldt, according to the facts of her case, didn’t buy or sell stock personally or know which companies her husband was trading,” Økokrim wrote in a press release on Thursday. Økokrim went on to state that it doesn’t see any “concrete basis (for accusations) that Huitfeldt either intentionally or negligently spread information in an illegal manner or actively cooperated with her husband to trade in violation of market rules.”
That explanation is being challenged by both professors, other investors and opposition politicans in Parliament. “We can’t understand why Økokrim won’t investigate possible insider trading in the case involving the foreign minister and her husband’s stock trading,” stated MP Hans Andreas Limi of the Progress Party. “There are many questions here.”
Several professors and other investors have also raised the possibility that Huitfeldt could have passed on insider information to her husband, knowingly or not. “I think Økokrim should investigate Huitfeldt and her husband,” Jon Petter Rui, a professor at the University of Bergen, told DN. Morten Kinander, a law professor at the Norwegian business school BI, agrees, calling it “a bit strange” that Økokrim concluded so quickly that it wouldn’t investigate.
Kinander told DN that it should be necessary for Økokrim to investigate, to avoid accusations that it’s treating Huitfeldt differently from her former colleague Moe from the Center Party. The potential for insider trading, even unwittingly, also makes Huitfeldt’s case serious, Kinander said.
Former Økokrim chief Erling Grimstad was also critical, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he thinks Økokrim has concluded too quickly that it sees no basis for an investigation. “That leaves an unfortunate impression,” he told NRK. “It amazes me that they make such a rapid decision against launching an investigation.” Grimstad added that he thinks the state prosecutor should also have evaluated the case.
It’s also emerged that neither Huitfeldt, the foreign ministry itself nor the Office of the Prime Minister had confirmed her husband’s own claims that he was not privvy to any insider information. They’ve accepted his assurances that none of the more than 100 trades he made involved government information. Huitfeldt also failed to follow advice from the top administrative official at the foreign ministry, Tore Hattrem, that it would be best if her husband only invested in funds, not individual shares. She also admitted to DN that she has occasionally taken government documents home with her, but didn’t answer questions about how she handled or stored them, or whether her husband was at home when she was involved in digital meetings from their house in Jessheim, north of Oslo.
Prime Minister Støre, meanwhile, continues to stand by his foreign minister. He says he still has confidence in her, also after it emerged that neither she nor her husband followed ministry advice to limit their investments to funds. He has stressed that Huitfeldt has admitted to “making a mistake,” adding that “she should have informed (us) about her husband’s share purchases. She wasn’t aware of that and I believe her. She has laid out the entire case and apologized for her mistakes. I have nothing more to add.” Flem has also apologized, telling newspaper VG that he’s sorry he invested in weapons production, such as that carried out by Kongsberg.
Støre quickly sharpened rules for stock trading by members of his government. He initially said ministers could choose to either sell shares upon appointment, freeze any transactions or have someone else manage them. Earlier this week he tightened rules futher, with his office telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that any sales of stock by ministers, state secretaries or political advisers are forbidden until after the government’s proposed state budget is presented on October 6.
Both the Progress Party and the Greens Party think Huitfeldt should resign, while the Reds Party thinks Huitfeldt should have evaluated going on leave if Økokrim had launched its own investigation. Several members of the parliament’s disciplinary committe have already said they think Huitfeldt has acted “irresponsibly” and has had a hard time clarifying her situation. Several commentators agree: “The foreign minister is portraying herself as lacking knowledge of what she should have done, and expects to be forgiven,” wrote DN’s political editor Frithjof Jacobsen. Her case has also raised more questions about Støre’s leadership.
A recurring criticism in Norwegian media revolves around the state’s rules regarding stock ownership and trading. They’ve been branded as lenient and criticized for not being enforced.
“It amazes me that so many politicians and their spouses clearly seek excitement in the stock market,” investor and former hedge fund manager Peter Warren told DN. “They might as well indulge in BASE jumping.”
He also accused politicians of having double standards, setting strict rules for others (such as wealthy investor Nicolai Tangen when he took over as head of Norway’s Oil Fund) but not for themselves. Many branches also have much stricter rules than the government: Journalists, investment bankers, lawyers and accountants, for example, must disclose personal investments to avoid conflicts of interest. Most can only invest in funds, not individual shares, and if they do, it must be reported to management and approved.
Not only Huitfeldt was having to handle questions this week. Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party was also under pressure to account for her husband’s stock purchases while she had government power from 2013 to 2021. On Friday she told NRK she would ask her husband, Sindre Finnes, to write up a list of all his stock market transaction while she was in office, and make it public.