Published On: Thu, May 30th, 2019

Heyliger pays the price “for years of suspicious dealings”

PHILIPSBURG – The downfall of the Golden Boy cannot have come as a surprise to anybody. It cannot have been easy to go through life as Claude Wathey’s grandson, as the man who had to step into the ole’ man’s shoes and prove his worth every day for more than 25 years. Theo Heyliger has not been sentenced yet, but the accusations of bribery brought against him by the public prosecutor’s office are serious and – given the details in the indictment – they will probably stick.

Heyliger has built a reputation as the guy who got things done, the same way his grandfather got things done. Anecdotal evidence suggest that Claude one day wrote the order to equip a complete school with furniture on the back of a beer coaster for Glen Carty – at the time active for his family’s Van Dorp business. When Carty went slightly baffled with the coaster to his brother Francis, asking him what he should do with this assignment, the elder Carty told him to go ahead. Van Dorp equipped the school and Claude promptly took care of payment.

Read also for more anecdotes: Heyliger’s bribery allegations have a long (family) history

Against this background it is not surprising that Heyliger, who entered local politics at the tender age of 25, took a leaf from his grandfather’s book. He once said that going through the required process at the VROMI-department was extremely cumbersome and that this caused enormous delays in the execution of necessary projects. Hence Heyliger learned at an early age to cut corners when the situation required this.

Mind you, this was not always to the detriment of St. Maarten. But the allegations that are now on the table show that country St. Maarten –and by extension its tax payers – paid a heavy price for Heyliger’s way of doing business.

According to the anti-corruption task force (TBO), Heyliger used consultant Ronald Maasdam as an intermediary for projects executed by construction companies Volker Wessels and Windward Road and dredging company Devcon. These companies paid bribes to Maasdam, who transferred part of these bribes to Heyliger. The companies inflated the price of their project to cover the cost of the bribes.

This way, the TBO says, a lot of money ended up in the pockets of Heyliger and Maasdam while the government picked up the tab. Volker Wessels paid $1.2 million, Windward Roads $2 million and Devcon $700,000.

Without the bribes all the projects these companies executed would have been a lot cheaper – and St. Maarten has enough trouble to make ends meet to begin with.

Heyliger, St. Maarten’s Golden Boy, who prides himself in developing cruise tourism to the island has said on numerous occasions that he always gets the blame for everything. When PriceWaterhouseCoopers published its integrity report about St. Maarten in 2014, this was part of Heyliger’s reaction to it: “The great majority of St. Maarten’s public servants are good people dedicated to their jobs. That a few should so severely damage the hard won reputation of the whole public is deeply saddening.”

Heyliger has seemingly always enjoyed a lot of support from a wide circle of people. His elections results have always topped those of any competitor, but the court case about the election fraud during the 2010 elections have shown that Heyliger’s United People’s party actually paid people to vote for him.

There was a story going around at the time that Heyliger had funded his political party with $3 million of his own money – but it has always remained unclear where that money actually came from.

As a member of the wealthy Wathey family – his father is Emanuel “Manny” Heyliger, his mother Lillian Agnes Wathey, a daughter of Claude – Heyliger had to keep up with the Joneses and the best way to do this was to become wealthy himself. If there is anything the Watheys understand better than anyone else, it’s money.

That money has bought Heyliger influence and power, and a prominent position among St. Maarten’s political elite. The position he acquired, first as an Island Council member, then as a commissioner and later as a minister and most recently as a member of parliament, made it possible to deliver on the promises to the companies that bribed him.

In a way, this is a rather sad story for St. Maarten. Heyliger is plenty smart and he has plenty of good ideas and insights. The way he – allegedly – went about his business has now come to haunt him.

That he now also has to deal with serious health issues does not change the fact that what he did during the past ten years in political office (if the charges hold up) is plain wrong and not in the interest of the country.

The sad thing is that bribery seems to be systemic in St. Maarten. Former parliamentarians Patrick Illidge and Silvio Matser and current MPs Frans Richardson and Chanel Brownbill have all been either sentenced for or accused of wrongdoing.

Brownbill was sentenced for tax fraud in 2018 (18 months imprisonment with 15 months suspended) as a result of the Emerald-investigation into fraudulent invoices paid by the harbor. Now Brownbill’s company Country Construction has also surfaced in the indictment against Windward Roads director Hendrik Jan Boekaar. It appears that Boekaar made a forged invoice for Country Construction dated February 10, 2014, for $25,000. Windward Roads paid this invoice, but Brownbill never did any work for it according to the indictment.

Whether it is about dodging taxes or taking bribes (Richardson is accused of taking $370,000 in bribes and failing to report this ‘income’ on his tax return) it all comes down to the same thing: self before country instead of the other way around.

Heyliger has thrived in this environment for decades but his run seems finally to have come to an end. And while his supporters rally around him there are also citizens who want nothing to do with him.

Already in January 2017, after the Bada Bing bribery scandal erupted, one Raoul Nicolaas sent a blistering letter to the editor of the Today newspaper. He wrote, among other things: “Do you really think we believe that you run clean elections, or that you put certain people on your political lists because “they have something to contribute,” or that you’ve never ever benefited from infrastructure projects? Do you really think that we are so dense? Theo what you are facing now is a backlash of years and years of suspicious dealings.”

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