Published On: Tue, Apr 9th, 2019

Heyliger’s bribery allegations have a long (family) history

Theo Heyliger in Island Council meeting - crca 1998

PHILIPSBURG – “What they did to his grandfather they are now doing to Theo.” That line, spoken in Parliament by United Democrats MP Franklin Meyers sums up the sentiment in the political arena about the legal troubles of Theo Heyliger, by now the former leader of the UD.

Heyliger is currently detained in the sick bay of the Pointe Blanche prison as a suspect in the so-called Larimar-investigation. (Larimar crystals are only found in the Dominican Republic; they honor Sophia, the Goddess of wisdom and contradiction). The anti corruption task force (TBO) arrested Heyliger on February 19 at his home; he allegedly took $300,000 in bribes from Ronald Maasdam back in 2011 in exchange for the contract to build the causeway bridge across the Simpson Bay Lagoon.

Bribes have been a fact of life in St. Maarten for a long time. Historian Will Johnson mentioned in an address about Heyliger’s grandfather Claude Wathey on July 31, 2016, what must have been one of the first recorded cases of bribery in St. Maarten. In the fifties of last century Wathey was having trouble getting a majority vote for a project to “turn around traffic in Philipsburg,” as Johnson described it. The crucial vote had to come from Piesco (Charles Wilson). Wathey sent Clem Labega to investigate and he came back with the message that “a small calf would do the trick.” So, according to Johnson, Wathey bought a calf from “either Lexie of Miss Ela Brown and Piesco was back on board.”

Recent history shows that Heyliger has continued throughout his political career with doing what his grandfather did all those years ago: bribing people into cooperation. In the 2010 election fraud scandal, Heyliger’s United People’s party (UP) doled out money like candy to encourage people to vote for the UP. Several police officers and Heyliger’s uncle Roy were dragged into court for this scam, but the party leader somehow escaped prosecution.

In May, Heyliger will be in court to defend himself against the accusation that he attempted to bribe former independent Member of Parliament Romain Laville with hundreds of thousands of dollars and the promise of a ministerial post if he withdrew his support for the government to help the UP back into the saddle.

After his arrest on February 19, Heyliger spent ten days in a cell at the police station in Philipsburg, the same place where casino owner Francesco Corallo was held in extradition detention. Because Corallo won a verdict from the European Human Right Court about his inhumane detention conditions the prosecutor’s office opted to move Heyliger for a while to the prison in Bonaire, claiming there was no capacity to send him to Pointe Blanche.

Heyliger has in the meantime returned from Bonaire and is now spending his days in the sick bay of St. Maarten’s prison. The court has suspended the pre-trial detention of one of Heyliger’s co-defendants in the Larimar-investigation, Ronald Maasdam. It is unclear for how long Heyliger’s incarceration will continue. The 60-day extension of his time behind bars the court imposed on March 15 ends on May 14.

Heyliger’s attorney Eldon Sulvaran did not immediately respond to our question whether there will be any initiative to petition the court for an earlier conditional release.

Grandfather Claude Wathey, who once described himself as a ‘beneficial dictator,’ was arrested on November 1, 1993, on charges of forgery, perjury and conspiracy, after investigators found that $13 million had disappeared from funds earmarked for the expansion and upgrade of the airport. This $35 million project was financed by Italian backers. Wathey claimed that the money had been used for down payments to contractors, but those contractors did nothing in return.

Together with Wathey, airport director Frank Arnell, former Lt. Governor Ralph Richardson and Wathey’s son Al, at the time chairman of the board at the airport, were arrested. Wathey was sentenced on July 8, 1994, to 18 months in prison for forgery and perjury. Prosecutors were however unable to prove that Wathey had received a part of the disappeared millions.

A year earlier, the kingdom imposed higher supervision on St. Maarten due to “an inadequate local administration.” Wathey protested by leaving politics. He died on January 12, 1998, of a heart attack, aged 71.

With his grandson Theo Heyliger now on the ropes for one count of taking bribes and one count of attempting to bribe a politician, the former UD-leader is neatly following his grandfather’s example. Both have without any doubt contributed to the development of St. Maarten to what it is today, but they both (seemingly) used methods to get where they wanted to go through methods that cannot stand the light of day.

To say as MP Meyers did, “What they did to his grandfather they are now doing to Theo,” feels like a feeble attempt to rewrite history and to ignore the serious matters Heyliger has to deal with these days. “Theo is now doing what his grandfather did” seems to be a more accurate depiction of the current state of affairs.