~ Prosecutor: LaBega not off the hook ~
PHILIPSBURG--More than four years after criminal complaints were filed against him in his capacity as Head of Marketing of the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau Edward Dest finally had his day in court on Wednesday. He is facing charges of embezzlement in his capacity as civil servant.
Prosecutor Nanouk Lemmers found it proven that Dest had embezzled funds belonging to the St. Maarten Tourist Office in New York for promoting tourism to St. Maarten in North America and instead had used the money to pay for airfare, hotel rooms, daily allowances, the Tourist Bureau's Christmas dinner and Boardwalk Mas 2010 expenditures.
For these crimes, which allegedly were committed between June 1, 2009, and August 23, 2010, the Prosecutor requested a suspended sentence of two months, with two years' probation. Dest initially also had been charged with money-laundering, but this charge was dropped.
The Prosecutor did not deny that the money had been spent on "important issues," but maintained that rules had been violated, "even though sometimes with good intentions."
Former Department of Finance head Bastiaan Roorda filed a criminal complaint against Dest, former Tourism Director Regina LaBega and civil servant L.K. in November 2010. As a result of the complaint, former Minister of Tourism Franklin Meyers suspended Dest and LaBega on November 3, 2010. Meyers withdrew their suspensions on December 2, 2010, as there was lack of evidence of any wrongdoing, he said at the time.
The complaint referred to an account with J.P. Morgan Chase Bank in New York with money to fund the St. Maarten Tourist Office on Fifth Avenue in New York City to promote tourism to St. Maarten in North America. The office received a monthly government contribution of US $100,000 for marketing purposes in what was called the "essential market." However, it emerged that money from this account had been used for other purposes.
The Prosecutor's Office alleged that no permission had been obtained from the Executive Council or the Commissioners of Finance and Tourism for these payments, but Dest claimed that in urgent cases money had been taken from the account legitimately, as government often was slow in making the necessary funds available.
Dest, LaBega and K. had said they all were authorised to sign cheques and there were no rules for payments from the Chase account.
Dest told the court it was regular procedure to pay expenditures from the Chase account when government's permission and funding were not forthcoming. He was charged with making a number of payments via this method, including airfare to a number of destinations such as Miami, Aruba and Berlin, and to Panama for visits to Copa Airlines.
Other charges included the alleged double payment of "per diem" allowances to the total amount of $1,800; hotel expenditures in connection with the 2010 Sea Trade cruise industry trade show in Miami; payment of $2,544 for a Christmas dinner for Tourist Office staff at Fusion Restaurant on Front Street without government approval; payment of $4,548 in hotel fees charged by Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort and Casino in connection with the visit of a Brazilian fashion magazine's crew for a photo shoot; and payments of a total of $12,500 to House of Nehesi Publishers in connection with Boardwalk Mas 2010.
Dest claimed these payments had not been made against the rules, as they had been authorised by his director and sanctioned by government, as the Tourist Office was allowed to make "emergency payments" from its Chase account.
The Prosecutor admitted it had taken a long time before this case was presented in court. In fact, Dest himself had been instrumental in speeding up the investigations in his case, as he had filed a court case in January 2014 to force the Prosecutor's Office to decide to either prosecute him or drop the case. However, the Prosecutor denied this all had led to an undue delay.
Attorney Janna Westra said the Prosecutor's case against her client should be declared inadmissible because of undue delay of his trial and because he was the only suspect to stand trial.
"What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," the lawyer said in pointing out that her client merely had executed the orders of his superior and the cheques had been co-signed by a colleague.
"It is unjust and illegitimate to only prosecute my client," said Westra, adding that he had been a victim of "trial by media."
Dest had been LaBega's successor as marketing director, had been guided by her and always had requested her permission to make payments, Westra said in claiming it had not been primarily her client who had misappropriated money from the Chase bank account. LaBega had played a much bigger role in this than her client, the lawyer said.
Westra concluded there was insufficient evidence for a conviction. She said the Tourist Office's budgets for 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 had been approved by the Executive Council.
"Delayed justice is no justice," the Prosecutor quoted LaBega as saying, but this did not prevent her from saying that the investigations in LaBega's and K.'s cases were still very much ongoing.
"There is more," Lemmers stated in pointing to the fact that the case file against LaBega might contain more charges.
Dest, who is seriously ill and in the meantime has been declared unfit for work, said that up until today he still did not know why he had been suspended in December 2010. "I always gave 110 per cent to government and used my sound judgement," Dest said.
He said he never had misappropriated government funds. "I am innocent of all charges. I worked under the order of instructions of my director. I hope the court finds me innocent and will clear my name after almost five years," Dest said at the end of the hearing.
The Court will give its decision March 25.