Published On: Sun, Oct 21st, 2018

When opportunity knocks

Hilbert HaarBy Hilbert Haar

The end of the sad story about Maritsa James-Christina, the disgraced registrar of the court in St. Maarten, is not in sight yet. After almost a lifetime of service to the court, James-Christina has been unmasked as an ordinary embezzler – to the tune of more than $1.1 million.

The allegations that she gambled this money away are probably true. I have seen her on several occasions at the blackjack tables in the Princess Casino where I used to play many a poker tournament.

And while James-Christina is now sitting behind bars, many people around her are scratching their heads, wondering how things could get so far out of control. When opportunity knocks, temptation more often than not beats common sense.

Seniority, access to bank accounts and an apparent gambling addiction – all these aspects come into play. There is obviously no justification for stealing money from your employer but employers have a responsibility too.

In this case one may wonder about the quality of accounting at the Common Court of Justice. How is it possible that somebody – anybody, really – pockets more than a million greenbacks before any alarm bells go off? Surely, somebody has been deeply asleep at the wheel here.

James-Christina still has her court case coming up and that’s the occasion when we will learn more about the missing checks and balances. Somebody within the court organization has to be responsible for overseeing the financials of the courthouse in St. Maarten.

If it turns out that that somebody just happened to be James-Christina – well, that’s a big black eye for the court. You simply cannot entrust the control over significant amounts of cash to a single person. It’s asking for trouble.

Again, this apparent lack of oversight and control is not an excuse for what the court registrar allegedly did.

I use the word allegedly reluctantly here because there is no court verdict yet in the criminal investigation. But James-Christina has been fired and the civil court has sanctioned her dismissal based on embezzlement. I feel therefore confident in saying that she did take that money  – because she could.

The next question is why she took all that cash. After all, being the chief registrar at the court is a respectable function with – I assume – a more than decent salary.

The most likely explanation is that James-Christina took the money to finance her gambling habits. When I lived on St. Maarten I was regularly at the Princess Casino to play a poker tournament. And on at least two of those occasions I have seen James-Christina sitting at a blackjack table.

While the financial risk of playing poker tournaments is limited to at best a couple of hundred bucks, blackjack is a sure way to lose a lot of money quickly, unless you master Phil Ivey’s level of edge sorting. And I don’t put James-Christina in the same league as poker legend Ivey.

Did the casino have a responsibility to stop the court registrar from losing all that money? There is something like responsible gaming, but in all the years that I have frequented local casinos I have never noticed that these gaming houses had a responsible gaming policy in place to protect gambling addicts. To the casinos it’s just business and after all, people are free to do what they want with their money (even if it’s not really their own money).

The government’s old casino policy prohibited locals from visiting casinos more than – if I remember correctly – three times per month. Later the government dropped this restriction, based on the thought that such rules infringe upon the freedom of choice.

I agree with this. You are free to do whatever you like with your money. People spend money in excess on food, cars, women, traveling, clothing – and so on. Gaming is just part of the mix.

When I produced a gaming page for the Today newspaper I addressed this issue because I am damn well aware of all the downsides that come with gambling addiction. My advice has always been: don’t play with your household money and leave your bank card at home when you go to a casino.

James-Christina had her private ATM with her access to the court’s third party bank account, so as long as nobody discovered her scam, losing money was no skin off her nose. It is however remarkable that I have seen her at Princess Casino at black jack tables after the court suspended her. Apparently, she had money left to spend; it also indicates to me that gambling addiction plays a major role in this messy affair.

Should the casino bosses have stopped her from gambling her money away? That’s a tough question because I do not know how much she lost per session. If you leave a blackjack table when you’re a thousand bucks down no alarm bells will go off. It is really easy to drop that kind of money in these games.

Now if you come back night after night and you keep bleeding money, it becomes a different matter. In that case I think it is justified to point to the responsibility of the casino.

Poker is a game whereby you have to take decision based on incomplete information. Writing this column, I get the same vibe: the information I have about this case is incomplete. Maybe James-Christina stayed under the radar in the casinos because she toured them all.

God knows we have enough casinos for a stunt like that.

Did the people closest to her not notice a thing? That’s another unknown factor for me. I mean, if I gambled away my entire salary, my wife would notice that we’re unable to pay the rent, the car or the groceries. But what if I only gambled with money I stole elsewhere? My wife wouldn’t have a clue.

No matter what is true or false in this story, it has brought gambling addiction to the forefront. Didn’t I read somewhere that Minister Johnson gambled away his money at a casino in the Netherlands together with a now dismissed member of his cabinet?

This tells me that gambling – as a responsible poker player I prefer the term gaming – is an issue this government has to address. Establishing the Gaming Control Board is a first step, but for some reason successive governments have failed to do this over the years.

That may be due to resistance from the casinos – I don’t know. Now that we have at least one member with gambling experience in the Council of Ministers, this feels like the right time to finally get on with it – and to make a responsible gaming campaign the first order of the day for the Gaming Control Board.