Published On: Tue, Sep 3rd, 2019

Rotten to the core

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By Hilbert Haar

Suppose I wrote that St. Maarten’s political system is rotten to the core. What would the predictable reaction be? Here are some ideas: I am a Dutchman, I don’t even live in St. Maarten, the Dutch have an agenda …. And of course I would get historian Will Johnson on my back for “making all kinds of accusations against local politicians.”

Well, so be it. St. Maarten’s political system is rotten to the core and – to use a familiar cliché – the proof is in the pudding. The experience of the past, say, ten years, clearly shows what locals think about politicians who get caught with their hand in the cookie jar: they are crooks, but they are our crooks. So back off.

It is of course a sad state of affairs, one that certainly does not benefit ordinary and law-abiding citizens on our island. Bribery drives up the price of doing business – thus, higher prices – and hampers the execution of government services at an acceptable level. Think garbage collection, dump management or power supply.

But while the negative consequences of bribery and tax fraud are clear, politicians outside the firing line and citizens who blindly continue to support their crooks circle the wagons. Typical reaction of the board of the United St. Maarten party (USp) after the arrest (for the second time in a year) of its leader Frans Richardson: “Our thoughts and prayers are with our leader’s family.”

Currently Richardson is, just like UD-leader Theo Heyliger, a suspect. Guilt or innocence has to be established in court. But recent history has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that a string of other politicians have taken the country for a ride. There is a pattern – one that is tolerated by all parties. If that does not concern you, you need to have your head examined.

Five parliamentarians and one former minister have been caught in the crosshairs of the justice system over the past couple of years.

Former MP Patrick Illidge was sentenced in 2017 for accepting bribes from Bada Bing owner Jaap van den Heuvel. A year later there were more convictions: former MP Silvio Matser went down for vote-buying and for tax fraud in two separate cases, former Public Health Minister Maria Buncamper-Molanus was sentenced for tax fraud (together with her husband Claudius), current UD-MP Chanel Brownbill was sentenced for failing to report income in excess of $1.2 million and USp-leader Frans Richardson was arrested as a suspect in the Emerald-investigation into irregularities at the harbor. Among the charges: accepting bribes to the tune of $370,000, money laundering and tax evasion. This year UD-leader Theo Heyliger became a suspect in the Larimar-investigation. Prosecutors charge that he accepted around $4 million in bribes over a fifteen-year period. Heyliger’s detention resulted in the suspension of his membership of parliament.

Whether Frans Richardson is in for a similar treatment remains to be seen. His arrest is very recent and if his detention is not prolonged he may be able to hang on to his seat. But if it is prolonged, none other than Maria Buncamper-Molanus is waiting in the shadows to claim his seat and – after an absence of almost ten years, reappear in the political arena.

Buncamper-Molanus is getting closer to the center of power anyway, as she has been appointed to the cabinet of Chris Wever, the successor of Public Housing, Urban Planning, Environment and Infrastructure (Vromi) Minister Miklos Giterson who had to go because of a conviction for drunk driving.

The common thread that links all these examples is clear. Criminal behavior is condoned, not only by political parties, but also by the government. After Heyliger’s arrest, even the opposition spoke out in support of him. Nobody ever said: I do not condone corruption – away with that guy.

The LMA – the rule book for civil servants – states that civil servants who are convicted in criminal court can be fired. Claudius Buncamper is living proof that this article is a paper tiger. In spite of a conviction for tax fraud he remains a high ranking civil servant. Maria Buncamper-Molanus – in spite of her conviction in criminal court – is able to get another job in the cabinet of Minister Chris Wever.

Of course, these convictions are not life sentences. Sooner or later you have to move on. But it seems very odd to me that people who stole from the state (like the Buncampers) are able to keep or obtain jobs that are paid for by that same state – and by extension by the tax payers.

Opposition against the establishment of the Integrity Chamber was based on the premise that St. Maarten has all of its checks and balances already in place. On paper, that could very well be true. But as long as politicians and decision makers keep turning a blind eye to any and all wrongdoings by “one of their own” that Integrity Chamber – when it finally starts doing its job – will make little to no difference.


About Hilbert Haar

Hilbert Haar is an independent journalist, writer, photographer and former managing editor of the TODAY Newspaper on St. Maarten. He is a founding contributor for StMaartenNews.com. He is currently based in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and enjoys emeritus status as honorary contributor for StMaartenNews.com.

Hilbert Haar is author of The Ultimate God Conspiracy.

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