Published On: Mon, Dec 10th, 2018

Interview with the departing Interim Chief Prosecutor Jeroen Steenbrink

Chief Prosecutor Jeroen Steenbrink

~ Invisible yet driven and focused behind the scenes ~

It seems much longer but Interim Chief Prosecutor Jeroen Steenbrink has only been serving in St. Maarten for little over a year. Steenbrink started last year December 1. He was clear from the beginning: his time on St. Maarten would be short-lived as interim head of the Prosecutor’s Office until a successor has been appointed. That successor has been found and will be Miriam Mol. She is expected to serve a full term of three years. In the meantime Steenbrink has the distinction of being one of the most behind-the-scenes chief prosecutors to ever serve on St. Maarten. He also has the distinction of implementing creative approaches to highly unusual cases. The investigations at the harbor and the dump are two examples.

In an exclusive interview with StMaartenNews.com Steenbrink talks freely with reserved passion about his short time serving on St. Maarten. He had a clear message for our readers and the people of St. Maarten. Read the full interview online here…

Mr. Integrity himself

In preparation for this interview we found out that a Jeroen Steenbrink served in Amsterdam, heading up an integrity bureau charged with combating corruption in the transportation and construction sector. Steenbrink confirmed that he served as the head of a multi-disciplinary team tasked with tackling integrity issues in Amsterdam from 2001 to 2004. The bureau still exists today as an internal advisory body and also offers dilemma trainings to civil servants.

It is no surprise then that Steenbrink fervently believes in the good that the Integrity Chamber can do for St. Maarten. The fact that there is not such a chamber active on a national level in the Netherlands should not be seen as yet another institution that St. Maarten is forced to adopt but as something useful that will serve a purpose on St. Maarten. Curacao has also now adopted plans for its own integrity bureau. On both islands the integrity bureau Steenbrink headed up in Amsterdam served as a model and inspiration for these new integrity bodies. Steenbrink has often been called on to advise about the practical set up of these integrity chambers, especially on St. Maarten.

Steenbrink sees enormous advantages for the people of St. Maarten by having such an integrity chamber. “People must be able to do good work, give account for what they have done, without any form of temptation or repercussions.” said Steenbrink, who believes the chamber will serve to prevent a lot of integrity issues, improve transparency and increase personal accountability in the civil service.

Steenbrink is adamant that he personally can always be called upon to give account of what he has done, how he has done it and why. “If for instance I was to be asked by anyone on the boardwalk about why I did what I did, I would always be able to give full account of what, how and why.”

His office has far-reaching powers which are a heavy burden to bear. Steenbrink explained about the powers the public prosecutor’s office has to confiscate funds, seize assets and detain persons. These are responsibilities he does not take lightly.

The Integrity Chamber is a typical St. Maarten solution to a typical St. Maarten problem, Steenbrink says. He points out that St. Maarten is not the Netherlands and therefore one cannot compare the two. On the island there is a fundamental need for a system of checks and balances. This will ultimately lead to a cultural change in the basic values of what is and what is not allowed, what can and cannot be done, and what is permissible and what is not. This will result in a code of ethics that people will have to adhere to as the law is not always sufficient to police people’s moral and ethical behavior.

The Integrity Chamber will be cooperating closely with the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Steenbrink touched on the aspects of this working relationship that will involve the research and reporting of integrity issues to the Prosecutor’s Office for further investigation and prosecution. The sectors that pose the most risks and will be monitored by the Integrity Chamber are the sectors that deal with lots of cash, permits and licenses and where a clear lack of checks and controls are evident.

Steenbrink explained that even his office severely undergoes the necessary checks and balances as an independent judge is always monitoring and controlling its work. All police actions are judged by an acting prosecutor whose work is also judged by a prosecutor. Finally, the court judges are the ones to pass judgement on the work of the police and the prosecutor’s office. Ultimately, the court of appeal and the high court are the final bodies that have to make sure that everything has been done according to the laws, rules and procedures.

Arrival after Irma

On his arrival in St. Maarten in a post-Irma environment Steenbrink was immediately confronted with the cases that dealt with the aftermath of hurricane Irma. Colleagues working in the public prosecutor’s office and in the police force were all personally impacted by the storm. Despite the circumstances people still tried and managed to do their jobs. “I have enormous respect for these people,” Steenbrink said. He is also greatly satisfied to see that adequate steps have been taken to improve the crisis management teams in St. Maarten that have to operate before, during and after a hurricane. Steenbrink believes the EOC is now better prepared and the island will benefit from the preparations and trainings these organizations have undergone.

Pending Cases

Steenbrink explained that at the start of his job, 90% of the pending cases he had to oversee dealt with crimes as a result of burglaries, looting, domestic violence, robberies, human trafficking, drug smuggling and youth offenses. Steenbrink acknowledged that a lot of time is spent on these cases. Some cases can be dealt with quickly. Other cases require much more time, especially murder cases and violent robberies. At the start of his time on St. Maarten there were 5 to 10 murder cases pending. Steenbrink hoped that the community appreciates the hard work that is being done as he personally is very proud of the work the police and prosecutors do as they are always working under extreme and difficult circumstances. As most people are aware, the St. Maarten police force – KPSM – is not at full strength and even needs the assistance of police officers from the Netherlands to carry out its tasks.

Dump

Steenbrink’s result-oriented approach to his work was the driving force behind his decision to tackle the biggest social issue on St. Maarten: The Dump. Steenbrink said he asked himself what he would like to have accomplished in the one year he will be on St. Maarten.

Steenbrink takes considerable pride in the fact that the Public Prosecutor’s Office is now ready to deal with the aftermath of any storm or hurricane. This was a major priority for his office in making the organization hurricane season ready and be able to handle any situation with the assistance of the marines so that the people of St. Maarten can count on the office to do its job in cooperation with the other justice partners should the need ever arise again in a post-hurricane period.

However, the sanitary landfill affects everyone on St. Maarten. Steenbrink remembers the Sunday he arrived on the island, the dump was on fire and the next day when he showed up to work at the office and he asked his colleague about it, they said to him “Get used to it.” That same week VROMI Minister Giterson stated during a press conference that the dump was a “giant murderer”. So from that time the dump always had Steenbrink’s attention. Before he left the island again, he wanted to make a contribution to the community: tackle the situation at the dump.

Of course, there were signals surrounding the dump that validated that need. The damage to the environmental in terms of air, water and soil pollution, suspicions of fraud, illegal import and dumping of garbage and the corruption signs within the government apparatus (‘ondermijning binnen de overheid’) that dealt with the sanitary landfill forced his office to start a criminal investigation.

The Prosecutor’s Office also made the surprising move to join the civil case started by Cannegieter c.s. The law allows for this possibility. This would also allow the Public Prosecutor’s Office to receive copies of documents that came forward in this civil case that can be used in their criminal investigation as well.

Civil Inquiry

Another surprising move of the Public Prosecutor’s Office is the request to the Common Court to allow an investigation into the governance issues at the St. Maarten harbor group of companies and port authority. Signals coming from the community indicated grave governance issues were at hand, enough to warrant an investigation and the request to have the board of directors removed. As a matter of fact, the decision regarding the latter request will be dealt with this month in court. The complex nature of the function of the harbor and vital role this port fulfills for the community of St. Maarten were sufficient reasons for the Public Prosecutor’s Office to use the creative means of using a civil inquiry to investigate the possible corruption activities at the harbor.

Continuity

Asked what would happen to all these cases when he leaves his post per the 15th of December, Steenbrink made the following statement that we have recorded in the following video.

Basically, Steenbrink emphatically stated that the work would continue. The Public Prosecutor’s Office is a team that will continue its work in handling cases no matter who is in charge as Chief Prosecutor. Together with the AG – Attorney General – all cases will be dealt with as continuity will be guaranteed by the all employees manning the office in St. Maarten, even despite the financial challenges facing the organization.

Steenbrink emphasized that it is important for people to understand that his office “has nothing against anybody personally.” Investigations are started based on clear signals from the community or from reports or complaints filed. Investigations are usually initiated as a result of connections with social problems or community issues. Steenbrink recalled his statement in a previous interview where he was quoted as referring to St. Maarten as “a small country with big problems.”

Crime must not pay

Another area where the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Openbaar Ministerie, OM) is playing a vital role is in the asset recovery activities of the various justice partners. The policy that crime must not pay is the main reason for the work of the asset recovery team, a multi-disciplinary team operating within the justice chain. Steenbrink is of the opinion that this asset recovery team (ART) has much more work to do. However, he wanted to point out that the team works regardless of the persons involved. Anyone committing a crime will have to relinquish the proceeds of these crimes, either voluntarily or face conviction.

In regards to the question of the OM investigating and prosecuting cases regardless of the persons involved and the often claimed belief that the “Dutch” were directing the activities of prosecutors and judges on St. Maarten, Steenbrink stated that in his 30 years in public service as a prosecutor he has never received instructions to prosecute anyone in particular nor would he entertain such instructions even if it ever happened.

Steenbrink considered the infamous photo of investigating officers, lawyers and judges having dinner at Green House restaurant to be unfortunate, but considers that as one of the main reasons why he likes to be ‘invisible’ here on St. Maarten where his work and personal life is concerned: he refuses to associate with others personally if he has to work with them professionally. That way he maintains his independence and remains above personal issues. The integrity of his office is of paramount importance to him and is a guiding principle in his work.

For this same reason, Steenbrink believes that public demonstrations are a sacred democratic right that should be cherished. He referred to the visit he received from the silent protestors at his office and the petition he received from the organizers of the silent march in August. The issues brought forward in the petition have been discussed with the Minister of Justice – the duration of investigations and the fact that it is not a policy of the Prosecutor’s Office to selectively go after certain individuals in our society. As a matter of fact, the petition called for an investigation to be carried out by the Law Enforcement Council (Raad voor de Rechtshandhaving – RRHH). Steenbrink said he welcomed such an investigation as the council is a regular discussion partner in the justice chain. As a matter of fact, Steenbrink encourages everyone to download the most recent report of the RRHH and read it thoroughly.

Pointe Blanche Prison

The situation at the Pointe Blanche prison remains a major point of concern for the Public Prosecutor’s Office. It is the responsibility of the prosecutor’s office to gauge the situation at the prison in terms of human rights and the constitutional requirement for a humane detention facility. Three chief prosecutors have come and gone since 10-10-10 and it is a pity to have to admit that the situation at the prison has not improved. As a matter of fact, Steenbrink stated, the situation has worsened since hurricane Irma. He hopes the government of St. Maarten makes use of the advice in a report that was submitted by experts from DJI in Holland regarding the detention situation on St. Maarten in particular and the justice system in general. Especially, taking into consideration the fact that prisoners sent to Holland and Curacao after hurricane Irma are set to return back to the Pointe Blanche prison soon. According to Steenbrink St. Maarten would do well to follow the Westzaan model of “Binnen Beginnen om Buiten te Blijven” (‘Start on the Inside to Stay on the Outside’) where rehabilitation and re-socialization is concerned.

Advice Successor

When asked what his advice to his successor would be, Steenbrink had the following to say: “Maintain good contact with the community as people need to be aware of the importance of the work of the prosecutor’s office for the society of St. Maarten.” Of course, there is much room for improvement, he added. “Through the use of social media the prosecutor’s office hopes to create understanding and appreciation for the people that work hard every day at the office (‘Parket’).” The Public Prosecutor’s Office has a staff of 20 people.

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