Published On: Tue, Mar 9th, 2021

In a league of their own


By Hilbert Haar

There is a strong similarity between the war on drugs and the fight against corruption and money laundering. Sure, if you throw enough resources at it, the occasional drugs transport will be intercepted and the occasional drug lord will be arrested. But you do not eradicate the drugs trade.

The same is true for corruption. It happens everywhere: in Asia, in the United States, in the Netherlands and – yes – also in St. Maarten. Locally, there is a by now impressive list of people in positions of power with sticky fingers.

Given the nature of the beast, the assumption that many more locals are currently in the process of raking in money that does not belong to them, is not at all far-fetched. Whether they are drug lords or straightforward embezzlers, these people are among us.

It is in this context almost funny that the Pro Soualiga Foundation and its United People’s party front runners Denicio and Renate Brison sent an email to StMaartenNews.com on March 4 with a link to the story about large-scale fraud at notary and law office Pels Rijcken in the Netherlands. Gleefully, the foundation notes in its brief email that Pels Rijcken “happens to be the very law firm which is representing the Dutch state versus Pro Soualiga regarding the validity of the Kingdom Charter.”

So what was the message, really? The Dutch state is using a bunch of crooks as its law firm of choice? And therefore, whatever these guys might say during a court hearing is compromised and of no value?

Let’s take a look at what the Pels Rijcken scandal is all about. In 2019 the investigative branch of the Dutch tax inspectorate (the FIOD) started an investigation into irregularities that had been brought to its attention.

Frank Oranje, a notary and managing partner at Pels Rijcken transferred between 2014 and 2019 €9 million ($10.7 million at the current rate of exchange) in uncashed checks from the United States to an ABN Amro account of his company over which he had sole control. The funds belonged to the Converium Securities Compensation Foundation, They were earmarked to compensate 12,000 investors in the Swiss insurance company Converium.

In November 2020 the FIOD informed Pels Rijcken about its investigation. The company barred Oranje immediately from entering its offices, suspended him and filed a complaint against him. Shortly afterwards Oranje, aged 58, committed suicide. The money has disappeared without a trace.

Directors Pieter Stuijt and Hans Besselink remember Oranje in an in memoriam on the company’s website without any reference to the financial scandal or to the way Oranje left this world: “We will miss his warm personality, his sharp mind, his thoughtfulness and his great sense of humor.”

Yeah, right, for years Oranje had been laughing all the way to the bank, as the saying goes. Obviously, the victims of his crimes did not have such warm feelings for the dead notary.

And comedian Youp van’t Hek, in his weekly column in NRC Handelsblad, did not have warm feelings for the remaining partners at Pels Rijcken either, because these people had been asleep at the wheel while Oranje was committing the crime of the century.

But first Van ‘t Hek took Oranje to task. “It is funny that this corrupt notary speeched in 2017 about doing business in an honest way and about the moral compass of his office.”

It is however most curious, Van ‘t Hek observes, that nobody at Pels Rijcken knew anything about the nefarious activities of its top dog. “Was he then so brilliant or was the whole office collectively asleep?”

The case will be investigated by the dean of the Bar Association in The Hague. And who is that? None other than Arjen van Rijn, author of the Manual Caribbean Constitutional Law (Handboek Caribisch Staatsrecht) and extraordinary professor constitutional law and constitutional reform at the University of Curacao. Van Rijn is also attorney-partner at De Clerq Attorneys. Interesting detail: according to Van ‘t Hek Van Rijn is a former partner at ….. Pels Rijcken.

His investigation aims to establish that other attorneys at Pels Rijcken had nothing to do with Oranjes shenanigans. In other words: his mission is to save Pels Rijcken’s reputation. Van ‘t Hek: “That guy has been asleep in the same office for years. That makes this little world conveniently clear. He still has the code of all computers.” 

The question still remains why the Pro Soualiga Foundation (that still has to make public how it is financed) sent that gleeful email to StMaartenNews.com. It’s not like Pels Rijcken’s attorneys are coming to St. Maarten to investigate Pro Soualiga’s murky funding. The case is about the validity of the Kingdom Charter. Pro Soualiga and its backers must know that they have already lost this race, but they soldier on by depicting the Pels Rijcken attorneys as a bunch of greedy money grabbers. That’s a cheap shot if there ever was one.

What I learn from this sad story is that: 1. Pels Rijcken’s accountant department could do with some serious improvement (a bit like St. Maarten’s tax inspectorate), 2. Pro Soualiga is grasping at straws in its doomed attempt to have the Kingdom Charter declared invalid. 3. Pro Soualiga prefers to look for corruption elsewhere rather than acknowledging that St. Maarten’s makers and shakers are in a league of their own in this department.