‘Luxury Lars’ down, but not out after travel expense apology

Opposition leader answers questions for first time after criticism of his travel expenses, but analysts say his reputation is far from repaired

An apology today by Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the opposition leader, for spending nearly a million tax kroner on first class travel has done little to put an end to the storm that has hounded the former prime minister since revelations about his travel expenses first emerged two weeks ago.

Rasmussen (Venstre) has been under intense scrutiny to explain his travel expenses as chairman of the Global Green Growth Initiative (GGGI), a South Korea-based climate organisation that receives 90 million kroner annually in Danish foreign aid.

After flying first-class a total of nine times as part of GGGI-related travel after he became chairman in May 2012, Rasmussen said he stopped doing so on June 11. GGGI officials may no longer fly first class.

SEE RELATED: A first-class scandal for ‘Luxury Lars’

Rasmussen said today that GGGI had not asked him to repay the money, nor did he make any motion to do so voluntarily. He did, however, say he would repay GGGI for his daughter’s travel as an accompanying family member on one trip. 

Rasmussen said he had tried to repay his daughter’s ticket before, but a miscommunication prevented the payment from being made. 

Answers questions for 212 minutes
More of a red flag for the media and for disenchanted voters than his first-class travel was Rasmussen’s staunch refusal to present documentation for his expenses, as well as his reliance on party lieutenants to fend off critical questions. 

Today was the first time Rasmussen appeared in public after criticism first arose. After finally publicising 200 pages worth of documentation, he held a brief press conference, during which time he apologised, saying he had travelled “not too much, but too expensively”. 

Rasmussen then proceeded to be grilled by the media for 212 minutes – not including a ten-minute break – during which time he fielded questions focusing as much on his specific travel expenses as on his use of public funds. 

DOCUMENTATION: Read documentation for Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s travel expenses (in English)

Rasmussen remained jovial during the barrage, replying at one point that he “was sleeping – and dreaming”, in response to a reporter’s question about what he was thinking about when he flew first class. 

At some points he turned defiant, saying that the press was digging to find out “whether he had bought one, two or three cans of beer from his hotel mini-bar”.

Sets credibility way back
The concern about Rasmussen’s ability to manage his accounts stems from a previous incident in which he repaid money he had been reimbursed for expenses incurred while carrying out official duties as a county mayor in Frederiksborg, as well as while serving as a member of the cabinet.

At the time of the repayment, Rasmussen, then the finance minister, pledged to keep closer tabs on his expenses. The scandal appeared to slide off him, and in 2009 he took over the Prime Minister’s Office after his predecessor, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stepped down to take over as head of NATO.

But this time around, many political analysts are saying that failing to keep track of his GGGI expenses may have been a gaffe the veteran politician could find hard to bounce back from.

READ MORE: 'Luxury Lars' told to step down as climate charity chairman 

“This sets him way back, and there is no magic spell that he can use to regain his integrity,” Christine Cordsen, Jyllands-Posten’s lead parliament reporter, wrote.

The news broke as Rasmussen and Venstre, parliament’s largest party, held a commanding lead over PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt and her Socialdemokraterne.  A poll released last week showed however that the two PM candidates were now running neck-and-neck. Analysts expected his numbers to slip further in the next wave of polls but said that Rasmussen’s apology today was the correct first step if he hoped to stop the slide. 

“He has a chance going forward if he can shift the focus from himself to Venstre's policy,” Thomas Larsen, a political analyst for Berlingske newspaper, wrote. “But he’s going to struggle with the fact that many voters now have a more negative opinion of him. He can also expect voters to be sceptical the next time he talks about budget cuts and being careful about how the state spends its money.”





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