Published On: Thu, Nov 29th, 2018

Curtain

regina labegaBy Hilbert Haar

The title of this opinion – Curtain – may not mean a lot to younger readers, so let me explain it briefly. It was the title of the British detective-writer Agatha Christie’s book about the last case of her sleuth Hercule Poirot. No wonder this came to mind when I read about the conviction of former Tourist Bureau and airport director Regina Labega.

The court handed down a 12-month conditional prison sentence and a fine of 300,000 guilders for embezzling funds from the Tourist Bureau’s New York office to enrich herself. Her partner in crime, Fabian Badejo and a third defendant, Erica Fortuno, got off with a 3-month conditional sentence and a fine of 50,000 guilders.

We all know what is likely to happen next. The defendants will become indignant, claim their innocence and go on appeal. Four months or so down the road, the appeals court will find all three guilty as well. No problem: there is always the Supreme Court. That procedure could take two years and sometimes more. And all the time the defendants will claim their innocence.

It is of course excellent that the court system offers the opportunity to appeal a court ruling. Judges are humans, they’re not infallible. And I would be the last one to deny any defendant her or his right to exhaust all legal options that are available to them.

But there is of course another side to this story. There always is. And here we get to the darker side of the way the high and mighty in our community navigate troubled waters.

I remember that the allegations against Labega were already out there when then Commissioner Theo Heyliger parachuted her into the comfy position of director at the airport. Later, Labega had to vacate that position because, after an investigation by the security services, VDSM, she was unable to obtain a certificate of good conduct.

Try to get a decent job as an ordinary citizen with such scratches on your record; you know beforehand that many doors will be slammed in your face. But that did not happen to Labega, because she is now a policy advisor to the minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication, Stuart Johnson.

Interestingly, the court also banned Labega from the right to hold any position as a civil servant for five years.

This puts her Minister Johnson nicely in the spotlight because what is he supposed to do now? Kick his policy advisor out?

I have nothing against Labega, or against the other two defendants, but the facts are what they are. In my mind, Minister Johnson cannot ignore the court ruling.

Of course, he could attempt to hide behind the LMA – the rulebook for civil servants – and point out that a civil servant can be dismissed if she or he becomes the subject of a criminal investigation. And he could emphasize that little word can: the government does not have to fire you, as the head of infrastructure management, Claudius Buncamper, only knows too well.

The Buncamper-case has shown that even convicted civil servants are able to hang on to their job. But the Labega-case is different in that the court has banned her from civil servant-positions for a period of five years.

Is there a cure for that? Of course there is. It would not surprise me if Johnson came up with the story that Labega is actually not a civil servant, but a consultant. That’s different, right?

If that rabbit appears magically from Johnson’s proverbial hat we will have one more piece of evidence that integrity, claims about checks and balances and that St. Maarten has sufficient institutions to deal with such matters are toothless paper tigers.

The house of cards is tumbling down; wrongdoers like Labega and Badejo join a rather long list of fallen locals – from Louie Laveist and Patrick Illidge to Maria Buncamper-Molanus and Silvio Matser.

This cleanup ought to be good for St. Maarten, but if those who are currently holding responsible positions fail to take appropriate action – for instance by putting Labega out to pasture – it will reinforce the notion that we are all corrupt.

Because I know that this notion is at least partially incorrect, failure to take action will reflect badly on all those who are working hard to make St. Maarten a better place.

I therefore wish Minister Johnson, as well as the opposition in Parliament, plenty of wisdom. It is time to show their true colors.