DALARNA, Sweden - As shock waves continue to emanate from Stockholm's recent
terror bombing, such an event appearing all but unthinkable given the Sweden
most people perceive, ongoing revelations highlight that Sweden has had some
disturbing changes. In many ways, today's Sweden faces the same problems as
other countries, including corruption and the sometimes nightmarish impact of
Emphasizing Swedish corruption's gravity, the vast bulk of cases that have come
to light are occurring in municipal housing
companies and the construction industry, with the substantive "human costs" of
these scandals only beginning to be appreciated. So-called "sick houses", the
significant health issues they've meant, are a recognized problem in Sweden,
with the ongoing scandals now suggesting why.
"This is something that really needs to be looked upon and looked into," said
Justice Chancellor Anna Skarhed of the scandals' health impact, sternly
observing for Asia Times Online that "there is even more of this [the effects
of corruption] than we've already seen, which is quite enough, and too much as
China's infamous melamine scandal is said to have affected 300,000 people, or
about .024% of its populace. But over 10% of Sweden's people are suffering
varying degrees of ill health effects from badly constructed or maintained
housing, with a not insignificant number suffering quite severely.
In 2008, Scandinavia's largest paper, Aftonbladet, noted, "In a new study from
[Sweden's] Umea University, it was found that 45% of those affected by sick
buildings - and who received medical treatment at a hospital clinic - are
unable to work. Of these, 20% receive a disability pension, and 25% are on sick
For much of its recent history, Sweden has represented what many consider the
embodiment of governmental integrity and efficiency, with typical Swedes
following rules so closely that virtually none even "jaywalk". Decades of
cradle-to-grave government benefits have created a deep-felt faith in the
authorities, present events providing a decidedly rude awakening for most,
though not all.
Leif Kavestad - author of the Swedish book Sick Houses, building
engineer, and a former environmental inspector who was personally decorated by
the prior prime minister - has charged that "when residents complain about
health hazards and health problems in municipal housing, it's not uncommon for
the municipality to hire 'consultants' that will declare the property safe."
Kavestad pointedly told ATol that "in legal disputes, the environmental agency
always accepts the word of the municipality's 'bought' consultants. Tenants
which complain over sick buildings with health complaints are sometimes
threatened - the parties together can act like a mafia against the tenants."
In Sweden, municipal housing provides the majority of the country's rental
apartments, some being "high-end" properties.
"It's a big problem, and it's a big problem for the trust in the authorities
and the trust in the kommun [municipality] ... it has to be dealt with,
and seriously," said Gustav Gellerbrant , spokesperson and political advisor
for Justice Minister Beatrice Ask, regarding the human consequences of housing
Over the past months, increasing numbers of Swedes are examining their
surroundings through new eyes. "Bribes are more common than we thought",
"Bribery cases in many municipalities", "Corruption and abuse of power in
Swedish municipalities" - these headlines representing but a few of the recent
months' revelations. Law-enforcement authorities have seen a change.
Prosecutor Gunnar Stetler, director of the Swedish prosecution authority's
National Anti-Corruption Unit (Riksenheten mot korruption), described for ATol
the current level of municipal corruption complaints to his office as "at least
50% higher" than the same period last year. A new investigative group within
the National Police to investigate corruption - including cross-border
questions and financial crime - is also now being worked on, Stetler
emphasized, describing expectations that the yet ongoing discussions would be
finalized "during December, or during January".
Both Stetler and Justice Chancellor Skarhed are among a handful of key
contributors to the new police group's formation, Chancellor Skarhed noting
"the information I have from the prosecutor's office and the Riksenheten mot
korruption strongly indicates that the resources the police have given to these
[corruption] investigations have not been adequate for quite some time." The
chancellor expects the new group to be formed in January.
Adding another dimension to the corruption problem, in September three rights
groups filed a criminal complaint against Saab, alleging bribery was involved
in the sale of Swedish fighter aircraft to South Africa. Prosecutor Stetler
describes the status of this case as under "active consideration", a
determination on the opening of a preliminary investigation yet to be
forthcoming. But Stetler's unit has been busy.
Corruption revelations began detonating in April, with an investigative TV
program resembling a Swedish version of 60 Minutes entitled Uppdrag
Granskning (UG), exploding municipal corruption onto the national
agenda. Their report centered on "bribery and corruption in Gothenburg",
Sweden's second-largest city, and today a place where all four of the city's
municipal housing companies have come under the National Anti-Corruption Unit's
Following the UG reports, charges ranging from aggravated corruption and fraud
to breach of trust and embezzlement have become among those being investigated.
Individuals focused on include local officials, municipal company executives,
and construction industry figures.
Drawing considerable outrage, funds earmarked for construction and renovation
of municipal housing appear to have gone to luxurious additions to officials'
private homes. "If you are 'well-connected' locally ... there might be people
then who are prepared to 'bend the rules' to give you favors, and maybe they
get favors back. And we know that this happens in municipalities," said
corruption expert and political scientist Staffan Andersson of Sweden's Linne
University, cutting to the issue of so-called local "strongmen", an issue well
publicized as a key corruption problem.
This autumn, Swedish National Television (SVT) aptly kicked off a new comedy
series about an inept and corrupt municipal politician,Strong Man ("Starke
man"), parodying the kinds of corrupt behaviors that have been making
Over the past 20 years, Sweden privatized increasingly large segments of its
public sector, particularly in municipalities. It set up hybrid companies that
were owned by municipalities but operated as semi-independent firms, firms with
far looser controls than when their work was done as an official municipal
organ. "We have been so focused on productivity, efficiency, and cost savings
... but there's also another side," Andersson explained. He added that when it
came to effective controls within these new entities, events have "not been
running as quick as we have done with productivity", questioning whether
today's controls fit "the kind of administration we had 20years ago".
Illustrating his point, Andersson emphasized for ATol that "there are a lot of
instances where ... municipalities are actually carrying out authority in a way
which is regarded as illegal by courts, administrative courts, but they
actually do it anyway". Paralleling this, an October SVT news report had
earlier revealed how some municipal auditors whitewashed wrongdoing, then
received legal immunity from the municipality for their actions, leaving no one
Pockets of widespread and deeply entrenched municipal problems have been
In Falun, the municipal housing company, Kopparstaden, is particularly
noteworthy, first making national headlines in 2009 with a story about its
chief executive officer (CEO) and pornography. Following this, the CEO violated
company rules by purchasing property for Kopparstaden's new headquarters from a
The transaction was first stated as approximately 3 million Swedish kronor
(US$440,000), then later "revised" to about five million. Subsequent research
revealed that the "revision" was due to debt which was acquired by Kopparstaden
with its property purchase, though, according to the City of Falun's accounting
firm, KPMG, apparently no documents were presented to Kopparstaden's board
regarding that debt.
Kopparstaden's new headquarters eventually cost a third over budget, KPMG
reporting that the firm's internal controls "had not worked", and that its CEO
had wanted a 295,000 kronor tennis court at the new office. Subsequently, the
CEO was quoted by a local paper as claiming KPMG was in error on its cost
figures, that the new headquarters was in reality "great business".
When contacted, Kopparstaden refused to be interviewed for this article.
Prosecutor Stetler noted that the KPMG report indicated Kopparstaden violations
of "law or regulation", but he added that under current Swedish law, it was
necessary to prove "intent" in order for a prosecution to occur. Wrongdoing in
itself is not actionable.
Andersson blamed weak municipal scrutiny and weak legal sanctions as key
Beyond financial issues, Kopparstaden has made headlines regarding tenant
health problems, some health issues being severe, one even life-threatening.
Notably, similar to its pronouncements on KPMG's "error", in court documents
the firm describes an apartment the local environmental authority condemned as
uninhabitable to be without any serious damage; though, substantive injuries to
the tenant had resulted, and tests revealed the apartment had "unusually high"
levels of toxic chemicals such as chloroform and benzene, plus a "powerfully
elevated" mold level.
Notably, a report published by Swedish corruption researchers in November 2008,
"Public Corruption in Swedish Municipalities - Trouble Looming on the
Horizon?", did warn of potential problems with the municipal hybrid firms.
In subsequently explaining how Sweden's municipal corruption grew, one of the
report's authors, political scientist Gissur Erlingsson of Linkoping
University, placed blame on both the creation of "fast and loose" municipal
hybrids, and an erosion of whistleblower protections beginning in the
mid-1990s, saying "people got more and more wary and afraid of losing their
Examining another aspect of events, Dr Daniel Burston (PhD Psychology, PhD
Social and Political Thought), chair of Pittsburgh's Duquesne University
psychology department, observed a culture of corruption always contains a large
"group of passive and increasingly indifferent people who simply 'go along'
with the status quo". "They try to avoid losing what they have by not opposing
the strongmen and their agents, and offering them bribes or 'cover', when
necessary", Burston outlined for ATol, adding that such conduct "becomes the
‘new normal', and so routinized, in many ways, that it becomes completely
unconscious - a tacitly accepted part of prevailing social and cultural
In societies where those in authority are particularly respected, Burston
observed that public opinion, combined with the phenomenon of "group think",
might well enable "corrupt leaders to gather the mantle of respectability
around their shoulders, and then operate unhindered as 'wolves in sheep's
"Prosecution has preventative effects," law professor Claes Sandgren of
Stockholm University emphasized, "you don't just prosecute to put just one
individual in prison, you also prosecute to deter others."
Ritt Goldstein is an investigative political journalist whose work has
appeared widely, including in the US's Christian Science Monitor, Spain's El
Mundo, Austria's Wiener Zeitung and Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, as well
as with other significant members of the global media.