By Alita Singh (The Daily Herald)
PHILIPSBURG –In recent months St. Maarten has seen a rapid number of raids and cases targeting everything from bribery and money laundering to vote-buying. The pace of these cases has had many in the community questioning if the underbelly of the country, oft talked about in hushed tones, is finally becoming exposed.
The team came into existence at the start of this year and was born from the “growing consciousness” of the people in the community. They want the lack of transparency from government and its institutions, and those involved in undermining public integrity and funds, to be tackled head-on.
“People don’t want to read in the newspaper about a big project and not know who was involved or how it came about,” Festen said. Situations that leave people guessing further erode the trust people should have in their institutions, she added.
Getting to the cause of the erosion has taken TBO to root out what they call “facilitators” – entities and persons who play a part in corruption or corrupt practices. A primary example of tackling the facilitators was in the land transfer case of former Minister Maria Buncamper-Molanus. A notary was among the suspects in the case. Often the facilitators, who include accountants to lawyers, are “not dishonest, they are used.”
Or in other circumstances, the way things have always been carried out forms the basis of the problem. The notary in the Buncamper case described the way the land deal was handled “as business as usual” when it should not have even been practice, Festen said.
The thick layers of mistrust have made it “difficult for people to open up to us,” Festen said. The voices and demands of residents are important aspects of tackling corruption and halting crumbling trust in government and its institutions.
Festen encouraged residents to speak up and demand transparency from their officials and institutions.
Residents also have “to open their eyes” and speak out if they see money leaking away due to corruption. “There should be fair chances for everyone in the community and not for a lucky few,” she said.
The need for awareness about corruption and the forms it takes is very high and has led the team to make use of social media and increasing contact with the community via the traditional media.
When asked if the call for people to share information about their neighbours and others would not create a community where neighbours turn on each other, Festen said, “It is better to be afraid of a neighbour exposing them than being afraid of a neighbour because he is a criminal.”
“People needed to know they can raise their voice and ask questions about things in the community,” spokesman for the Prosecutor’s Office Gino Bernadina added. “Pressure groups are also important to bring awareness and demand answers.”
The work of TBO is only part of the solution to restore trust. The team aims to catch criminal elements, but it will ultimately be up to the country to close loopholes and tackle lack of transparency to prevent re-occurrence. “St. Maarten’s problems can only be solved by St. Maarten.”
“We can catch certain criminals and in a few years take them out of the playing field. The next step is St. Maarten [government, Ed.] has to fix the way things are done or another criminal will step in and use the same method,” she said.
The team is open to discussions with Parliament, Government or individual ministers to share the loopholes uncovered such as the absence of checks and balances.
The team does not intend to operate in a vacuum. It is looking for “local partners” to help it battle corruption. “We are looking for partners with common interests,” said the team leader.
There is interest in meeting with the Integrity Chamber when such is formed. “We have common goals,” said Festen.
TBO is completely independent as is the Attorney General and Prosecutor’s Office, said Festen. It is also free from any political influence including that of the Netherlands, although it is totally funded by the European part of the kingdom.
The task of the team was assigned by the Ministers of Justice of the Netherlands, Curaçao and St. Maarten. The team has a two-year mandate as of January this year, but a request for an extension is expected because there is still significant work to carry out.
The money confiscated by the team on St. Maarten is added to the country’s “Crime Fund.” It would be ideal for the team to eventually be financed by that fund, Festen said.
The bigger cases tackled by TBO have made headlines, but the team which includes financial detectives and tax experts has had other successes. It has assisted other law enforcement agencies confiscate money from banks held in accounts connected to investigations.
Contact can be made with the team via Facebook.com/tboanticorruptionwatch.