~ Trial date set for May 10 ~
GREAT BAY – The public prosecutor has charged former airport-director Regina Labega, author Fabian Badejo and a third suspect, Erica F. of membership of a criminal organization that embezzled money from the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau. Other activities of this organization were filing incorrect tax returns for wage, profit and income taxes, forgery, money laundering and fraud.
Yesterday there was a pro forma hearing in the Court in First Instance. Only Labega appeared. The court set the date for the trial at May 10 – 6 years and 5 months after the former head of the finance department, Bas Roorda, filed a complaint to the prosecutor’s office about suspicions of embezzlement at the tourist Bureau where Labega was at the time director.
The public prosecutor presented the charges in court yesterday and after picking the trial date the session was already over.
The charges against Labega mirror those that were brought against the former marketing director of the Tourist Bureau, Edward Dest, who took the initiative to speed up his trial already in March 2015. While the court sentenced Dest to a symbolic 1-day prison term with 1 day of probation, the court considered him more as victim than villain: “You do not deserve punishment,” the judge said at sentencing on Mach 25, 2015.
In fact, the Dest-trial turned into an indictment against Labega who will now have to give account for her actions in May.
The indictment against the former airport-director runs eighteen pages. Basically, Labega spent money from an account at the JP Morgan Chase Bank in New York that was earmarked for destination marketing in the North-American market on other things without authorization.
Payments for a total of $27,480.72 were made from this account, amongst others for an unauthorized Christmas dinner at the Fusion restaurant of more than $2,500, travel to Aruba and Panama and payments of $12,500 to publisher House of Nehesi.
Between June 1, 2009 and August 23, 2010, the Chase-account in New York was fed with $67,000 per month to finance the New York office of the Tourist Bureau that was charged with destination marketing. The Executive Council of the Island Territory approved the budget for this office for the period 2008-2010, but after that approval it lost sight of how the money was spent. As long as the office did not exceed the budget, no alarm bells went off. All in all, the New York Office was funded between 2008 and August 2010 with an amount of $2.1 million.
In 2015, Dest was charged with the payments he made on the instruction of Labega out of the Chase-account. Among them were double per diems for Labega and a trip to Aruba and Panama.
The Christmas dinner for Tourist Bureau staff at the Fusion restaurant on December 24, 2009 was also paid out of the Chase-account. Labega told investigators that she had not asked permission for this from the Executive Council “because I would not get permission anyway.”
In the Dest-trial an interesting statement from former Lt. Governor Franklyn Richards surfaced. He told investigators “that the whole Executive Council was aware that the Tourist Bureau was making business trips without permission and that the government accountant bureau Soab had investigated this.”
That statement may come back as a life buoy for Labega and her fellow suspects at the trial in May because it suggests that what she did with money from the Chase-account had the government’s silent approval.
The prosecution has charged Labega with using money from the Chase-account for unauthorized purposes, and alternatively with embezzling the money and with money laundering.
Another charge on the indictment is a payment of more than $142,000 from the Chase-account to the East Caribbean Destination Marketing Company of Badego and Erica F. The money was made available through fifteen payments varying from $600 to $20,485.
An interesting part of the charge is about a forged job letter Labega allegedly created on May 19, 2009 in the name of a company called Pelham Inc. The letter was addressed to Labega and stated: “You have been employed by our company in the capacity of accounts manager – Eastern Caribbean Division, since February 25, 2008. Your annual salary is $45,000. In addition you are eligible (based on perform – sic) for an annual bonus of a maximum of 5 percent of your annual salary. You are also covered by our group benefit plans, of which you are aware.”
The fiscal party of the charges has to do with tax returns for the East Caribbean Destination Management Company; the company failed to file returns for wage taxes, premiums and turnover tax between January 2009 and December 2010. On June 19, 2016, these returns still had not been filed.
Allegedly Labega also filed incorrect personal tax returns for the years 2009 and 2010. The prosecution charges that she reported a too low personal income.
Badejo is facing charges that have to do with the East Caribbean Destination Marketing Company, but also with a fiscal offense. In a protest letter against his tax assessment for the year 2009, Badejo wrote that he was ‘unemployed while being supported by family.” According to the prosecution, this statement is incorrect, and therefore forgery.
Erica F. is charged with all offenses related to the East Caribbean Destination Marketing Company.
This company itself has also been summoned in this case for laundering the $142,000 payment from the Chase-account and for fiscal offenses.