Published On: Fri, May 25th, 2018

Worth every penny

Hilbert HaarBy Hilbert Haar

Should the court grant the public prosecutor’s office its wish to conduct a civil inquiry at the port companies? The answer to that question is currently under consideration. On June 26, the Common Court of Justice will pronounce its ruling.

My opinion?

There is much to be gained and nothing to be lost from such an exercise. As far as I am concerned, the court should give the prosecutor’s office the green light.

The harbor opposes the civil inquiry, saying that there is nothing more to investigate because all the facts have already surfaced from the criminal investigation into the multi-million dollar fraud allegedly committed by port director Mark Mingo and his buddy O’Neal Arrindell, the director of Checkmate Security.

Oh, and the harbor’s argument is that it suffered a lot of damages from Hurricane Irma – around $25 million – and that it does not fancy wasting its scarce resources on what it called “a very expensive and cumbersome investigation.”

Minister Cornelius de Weever,  responsible for the department of Tourism and Economic Affairs and in that function the government’s shareholder representative for the harbor, agrees with this position. He too, therefore opposes the civil inquiry.

Minister De Weever made a brief statement in court on Thursday. this is the text verbatim:

“As the Minister of Justice, I do not believe in any interference of investigations. As the interim Minister of Tourism I understand that as a shareholder representative, we are directly or indirectly an interested party. Post Irma, my person as Interim Minister of Tourism, along with the Ministry and the Harbour, have taken keen note of the consequences of the investigation and the impact it could potentially have with our stakeholders. We have been trying our best to build the trust and confidence with the cruise industry to ensure that Sint Maarten becomes / remains the #1 cruise port on their itineraries. I have taken inventory of the changes that need to be made and have started the process to ensure compliance and further enhance proper governance.”

De Weever’s attorney Jairo Bloem told the court that ‘Het Land’ (i.c. the minister as the harbor’s shareholder representative) agrees with the position taken by the attorney for the port, Chris de Bres. Ergo: Minister de weever opposes the civil inquiry, just like the harbor itself. His oblique statement to the court does not change that.

One may wonder why this is so, given the charge by the prosecutor’s office’s attorney that politics has been using the harbor as its sugar daddy. And that is certainly true. Behind the façade of past successes in the field of cruise tourism, there is a mechanism in place that circumvents democratic control.

The construction of the causeway bridge across the Simpson Bay Lagoon is a typical example. A bridge of $50 million – a major piece of infrastructure that should have been built by the government, after approval of such an investment by the Parliament. Instead, the harbor did it while government and parliament had nothing to say about what was happening in their own backyard.

There is of course the almost grotesque embezzlement by harbor director Mark Mingo and others. That little matter will indeed play out in criminal court. But does that trial make the harbor healthy again? I don’t think so.

The interim management – Ton van Kooten and Richard van der Mark – has indeed taken some measures to plug the biggest leaks. But in my opinion that is not enough.

The harbor companies are crucial to the country’s economy and, as the prosecutor’s office intends, no stone must be left unturned.

This is not about a witch hunt, even though further findings could nail those responsible for the damages the harbor companies suffered and they can (and hopefully will) be held personally responsible.

The civil inquiry is designed to unearth all the weak spots in the systems that were – and are – in place at the harbor. Obviously, recommendation for how to improve the situation must follow.

I fail to see why the harbor is so against this inquiry. In the past (see the PriceWaterhouseCoopers integrity report) the harbor frustrated investigations into its way of doing business and that seems to continue with its rather stubborn opposition to this civil inquiry.

Is this going to cost a lot of money and require a lot of energy? Sure, I do not doubt that for a second. But it will be worth every penny and every drop of sweat. So get on with it.