Published On: Thu, Jan 23rd, 2020

Protect your assets

Opinion - St Maarten NewsBy Hilbert Haar

The mindboggling case of the now former branch manager of the courthouse in St. Maarten, Maritsa James-Christina, should function as a cautionary tale to all companies and organizations where somebody is entrusted with money. If you ever needed proof that the occasion makes the thief, this is it.

Years ago, I interviewed a private investigator in Amsterdam who specialized in detecting fraud and embezzlement in companies. It was an interesting encounter from which I learned that people who steal from their employer – or from their tennis club, or any other organization where there is something worth stealing – almost always begin with putting small items in their pockets. And when nobody notices, they move on to the next level.

As a teenager, I had a summer job at a chocolate factory in Dordrecht. When you left the factory, you had to pass through a security system where a light turned randomly green or red. At red, you became subject to an inspection of your bags and your clothing and if those guys found one chocolate, you were out on your ass – no questions asked – so I always ate them before it was time to go home.

At the newspaper where I worked almost all receptionists who handled cash receipts managed to find a way to take part of that money home. When a controller looked at the books he became immediately suspicious. Why? Because the cash and whatever was on paper always matched. Highly unusual and the receptionist lost her job because of it.

You’d think that an institution like a courthouse has its affairs in order. Alas, as a lady at IT-company Volmac in Utrecht once told me with glee when I wanted to send her some text electronically: “Don’t you know that under the lighthouse it is always dark?”

I have never forgotten that keen observation and I have found that it applies to many situations; the embezzlement at the courthouse is just another prime example. I find it extremely sad to see someone like James-Christina who worked at the court for so long go up in flames like an ordinary thief, but otherwise I have little sympathy for her.

The court obviously has to take part of the blame. I mean, how is it possible for somebody to embezzle a million bucks before somebody wakes up? I know, with hindsight it is easy to point fingers but still: why was there no proper control? Why was nobody paying attention?

The answer is, most likely, that everybody trusted James-Christina. She was, no offense, in a way part of the furniture. She belonged.

I am not a financial whizz kid (not a whizz and not a kid either) but I know one thing for sure: if you entrust employees with your money you better make sure that you have proper control systems in place. This is especially true for organizations where financial management has been in the hands of one person for a very long time.

Therefore, I recommend shaking up your organization. You’ll protect your hard-earned money and you protect your financial managers as well; after all, if they cannot steal, they won’t have to go to prison either, or face public humiliation through the publication of their clever schemes.

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