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Politicians grilled in Parliament

Six top Norwegian politicians including the prime minister faced a barrage of questions on Tuesday, when the Norwegian Parliament’s disciplinary committee held a marathon hearing that ran into the evening. At issue is whether they lost their impartiality when they landed in a variety of conflicts of interests, and most have already admitted that they did.

The Norwegian Parliament’s Control & Constitution Committee, which handles disciplinary matters, held a 12-hour hearing on Tuesday at which four government ministers plus Norway’s former and current prime minister were “invited” to appear for questioning into various conflicts of interest. Norway’s former minister of culture and sports, Anette Trettebergstuen, sat alone (at right) as she was about to be questioned about how she appointed some friends and acquaintances to state boards and commissions. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Three of the government ministers being grilled have also given up their posts, either willingly or under pressure. They include former Culture Minister Anette Trettebergstuen of the Labour Party, the former government minister in charge of research and higher education Ola Borten Moe of the Center Party, and former Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt, also of the Labour Party. Huitfeldt didn’t offer to step down, but Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre decided to replace her after it emerged that her husband held stock in companies including defense contractor Kongsberg.

Støre also had backed Trettebergstuen’s decision to resign after being involved in the appointments of some friends or acquaintainces to state boards or commissions. She later objected to Støre’s claim that she’d been warned against some of the appointments, though, and after Støre didn’t fire another Labour minister, Tonje Brenna, for similar offenses. Brenna, now government minister in charge of labour and integration, was due to testify last at Tuesday’s hearing.

Former government minister of culture and sports, Anette Trettebergstuen, at Tuesday’s parliamentary hearing. She remains a Member of Parliament (MP). PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

It was controversial stock-trading by one minister and the husbands of two others that has caused the most trouble for Støre’s predecessor, Erna Solberg, and for his former foreign minister Huitfeldt. “I should have told my husband, ‘steer clear of shares in weapons makers,'” Huitfeldt said at the hearing. She firmly denied his holdings had any effect on her decision-making, even stressing that he only held the Kongsberg shares for 11 weeks and sold them at a loss. Such holdings, however, can jeopardize others’ views on her impartiality, and he hadn’t told her about them. Nor was she aware that the couple should have reported such holdings to the ministry’s administration.

“I didn’t get that message,” Huitfeldt testified. “I’m not absolving myself of responsibility (in Norway, any trouble in any ministry always leaves the minister as politically responsible), but that can clarify why things went the way they did.”

Former Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt was grilled for more than an hour at Tuesday’s hearing, and arrived with former ministerial and political colleagues. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party has landed in trouble similar to Huitfeldt’s, two years after she left office. During her two terms from 2013 to 2021, her husband Sindre Finnes bought and sold shares and derivatives more than 3,000 times, involving a long string of Norwegian companies that could have been affected by government policy. He also earned considerable profits along the way, and his stock trading involved lots of local firms that could lose or gain on government policy.

Finnes didn’t divulge his investment activity to wife, however, and only now has provided more detailed reports of it. Solberg still claims she was unaware of it all. There were warnings along the way, and Solberg failed to follow up on administrative advice to actively tackle any potential conflicts of interest. She’s now a Member of Parliament and, like all the others caught in conflicts who’ve recently resigned government posts, can’t resign her seat until after the next election. Trettebergstuen, Moe and Huitfeldt must serve out their elected terms as well.

Former Prime Minister Erna Solberg kept smiling throughout her own ordeal before a parliamentary committee and the press on Tuesday. Her husband also had a vast stock portfolio that she has admitted left her in conflicts of interest, even though she claims she wasn’t aware of his holdings. She admits she should have been, and that’s now threatening her political career. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Solberg, however, arguably has most at stake regarding her conflict-of-interest trouble (called inhabilitet in Norwegian) because she remains leader of Norway’s Conservative Party and its candidate for prime minister. She’d already been gearing up to run against the current Labour prime minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, in the next election in 2025, but now her political future appears more in doubt, even after any criminal investigation of her husband’s stock trading was dropped.

She faced the most questions on Tuesday, also after repeating how sorry she was that she in fact was inhabil during parts of her time in office. She repeated how she probably should have “better controlled” her husband’s investment activity, “but I had no reason not to believe the information he gave me.” She therefore claims it never felt “natural” to launch any process that would have revealed his massive stock trading: “I knew he had some shares,” she said at one point, but not the extent of it.

Erna Solberg faced more questioning by reporters right after her first appearance at the hearing on Tuesday, with her press adviser standing by. She was due to return for another hearing appearance later in the evening. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Asked whether she would have resigned as prime minister if her husband’s share trading had been discovered while she held office, she replied “that would have been up to the (Conservative) party. It would also have been up to her government partners at the time, which included the Progress, Liberal and Christian Democrats parties during her eight years in office.

Progress Party veteran Carl I Hagen now wants to know whether a majority of those non-socialist parties still support her, more specifically whether they would still support her as prime minister candidate in 2025. He later told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he thinks that question should be decided before Christmas, claiming it would be “an impossible situation for Høyre (the Conservatives) and Erna Solberg if she’s not supported by the three parties in 2025.” The Conservative Party itself also needs to determine whether Solberg will indeed be their prime minister candidate given the events of recent months.

Former government minister Ola Borten Moe of the Center Party was the only one to claim at Tuesday’s hearing that it was “completely correct” of him to resign his post, after his own stock trading became known. He also remains a Member of Parliament. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Solberg was first in line for grilling at Tuesday’s hearing, followed by Trettebergstuen, Moe and Huitfeldt before Brenna was to undergo questioning later in the afternoon. Moe, meanwhile, said he didn’t regret his resignation as government minister last summer, adding that he thinks it was “completely correct to step down. I think it would have been extremely demanding, if not impossible, to remain as minister with the confidence you have to have. That’s just how the dynamics develop.”

Moe’s mistake was buying shares in Kongsberg himself last January, right when the government otherwise was planning major purchases of ammunition in the Kongsberg-owned weapons maker Nammo, to donate further to Ukraine. While Huitfeldt described stock investments tied to ministers as “a minefield,” Moe went farther and took full blame for his own stock trading.

“As minister it’s always your responsibility” when things go wrong, Moe said.

Member of Parliament Grunde Almeland (third from left) has led the disciplinary committee’s work. He represents the Liberal Party, one of the Conservatives’ former government partners. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Now it will be up to the committee to decide whether conflicts of interest actually occurred. The police decision not to pursue any illegal activity “doesn’t acquit” those now involved “in the biggest political scandals in Norwegian politics in recent times,” MP Seher Aydar of the Reds Party told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) over the weekend. The committee’s decision will have no legal ramifications, but can make or break the political careers of those involved, Solberg most of all.

The leader of the parliamentary committee, Petter Frølich, is an MP from the Conservatives itself, while the MP in charge of the hearing, Grunde Almeland, represents one of the Conservatives’ former government partners, the Liberals. Almeland stressed to DN, however, that the decision by the police economic crimes unit not to pursue any insider trading or file charges has no effect on the committee’s work.

“Our job as the control (disciplinary) committee is to assess to what degree Sindre Finnes’ stock trading has made Erna Solberg partial while in government,” Almeland said, along with examining the cases behind the other former ministers. “We will continue our work to examine the extent of Solberg’s conflicts of interest when she was prime minister.”

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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