Published On: Mon, Mar 11th, 2019

Whistleblowers need plenty of guts

whistleblower becomes target

By Hilbert Haar

PHILIPSBURG — The suspicions of bribery and money laundering leveled against United Democrats-leader and now former Member of Parliament Theo Heyliger reveal that there is at least an aura of corruption surrounding the construction of large infrastructure projects. It justifies the question whether the Heyliger-case is an incident or the tip of a very ugly iceberg. If the latter option is closer to the truth and I think it is – the question what St. Maarten can do about it becomes relevant.

Bringing injustices and outright crimes committed in the public or private sector to light is a lot easier these days thanks to the internet. Wikileaks, Football Leaks, Curaleaks, Cubaleaks and a host of other whistleblower websites have made clear over the years that wrongdoings will not remain obscured forever. But at the basis of all these websites is still the good old whistleblower – the employee or the civil servant who becomes aware of corruption and wants to do something about it.

The most famous whistleblower the world has ever known so far is Deep Throat – codename for the late assistant FBI director Mark Felt who fed Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward vital information about the June 17, 1972, burglary at the offices of the Democratic Party in the Watergate building that eventually resulted in the fall of President Richard Nixon, not to mention the Alan Pakula’s 1976 movie All the President’s Men, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.

The Netherlands has its own whistleblower-icon in the person of Ad Bos, who currently lives in St. Maarten. Bos brought the largest construction fraud in Dutch history to light. He worked as technical director for Koop Tjuchem, a construction company he built together with Fred Veerman. Since October 1997, Bos worked for this company in St. Maarten but a conflict with Veerman led in 1998 to his dismissal.

Back in the Netherlands, Bos got his hands on shadow accounting that showed how construction companies made prohibited price agreements. Bos paid a heavy price for his whistleblower-role, but in the end he was vindicated when the Dutch government awarded him $1.7 million in damages.

On November 20, 2012, Bos told his story in a broadcast on Dutch TV. The Dutch construction sector, at the time good for an annual turnover of €60 billion $67.4 billion), was part of what he labeled as a “dense network in which government and contractors are in cahoots.”

“I could prove that contractors were massively making price agreements,” Bos said in the broadcast.

That not everybody was happy with his revelations is an understatement but there was nevertheless a parliamentary inquiry and contractors were fined for a total of €660 million ($741 million).

Did this change anything? When I met with Bos in the Today-office several years ago, he told me that in the construction world it is business as usual. The Heyliger-case and the case against Ronald Maasdam both seem to confirm his point.

Bos went with his findings to the prosecutor’s office in 1998. “When this is correct, we are going to act, they told him. And: “This is gold.”

But Bos says in the 2012-broadcast, that after his first meeting with prosecutor’s there was only silence. He became paranoid fearing that if he handed over the original documents that formed the basis of his story, “they would be locked away like the film rolls of Srebrenica.”

Three years after his first contact, Bos received the result of the prosecution’s investigation: “There was no reason to establish that crimes had been committed.” As a citizen you are obliged to hand over your documents, the prosecutor’s office told him.

Bos saw only one way out: he went to the media. On November 9, 2001, he told his story in a broadcast of Zembla and four days later he turned over his documents to the prosecutor’s office.

The parliamentary inquiry into the construction fraud played out in 2002. That inquiry confirmed that construction companies had committed large-scale fraud while the government was looking the other way.

The inquiry-committee leveled in its final report harsh criticism against three ministers, the prosecutor’s office and the NMA – The Dutch Competition Authority. Five hours after the publication of the report Minister Korthals (Defense) stepped down, thereby acknowledging that he had lied to the Second Chamber.

Blowing the whistle on the construction sector had far-reaching consequences for Ad Bos. He could not find another job in the industry, he was forced to sell his house and he lived for quite some time in a mobile home.

“You reveal something really big and in the end you are punished for it,” he says in the 2012 TV broadcast. “The system turns against you because it does not want that these kinds of things become public.”

In 1998, Bos consulted his wife Joke about what he should do with the information he had. Together they decided to report the fraud.  “If I had known before hand what would happen afterwards, I would have thought that I would be unable to handle it,” she says in the TV broadcast. “But it turns out that you are stronger than you think.”

Ad Bos: “All this has not made me an unhappy human being.”

Research by Tilburg University among 27 Dutch whistleblowers shows that the consequences of reporting abuse are dramatic. In 80 percent of the cases these effects were “very negative” for work and income; in 50 percent of the cases they were “very negative” for family life and in 45 percent of the cases whistleblowers reported severe psychological complaints like fear and depression.