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Former tourism marketing head facing suspended prison sentence

~ 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.

Essential market

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.

Emergency payments

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.

Arke Airline returns to St. Maarten November

page3a240RIJSWIJK--After ceasing service to St. Maarten six years ago, Arkefly (Shortened to Arke in the current corporate design to match the travel agency) is resuming flights to St. Maarten per November this year, the Dutch airline announced on Tuesday.

Flights from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to St. Maarten will be carried out with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner at considerably lower fares, some twenty per cent cheaper at least, than competitors Royal Dutch Airline KLM and Air France.

Arke, a subsidiary of travel organisation TUI Netherlands, will be scheduling two flights per week, on Wednesdays and Sundays. Arke's flights to St. Maarten on board the comfortable, innovative Dreamliner will be combined with flights to Curacao. The first flight is scheduled to land at the Princess Juliana International Airport on Sunday, November 1, 2015.

According to a press release issued by the Government Press Secretariat, Minister of Toursim and Economic Affairs Claret Connor, his Cabinet and the management of the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau recently met with the Arke representatives, Rob Oostendorp, Product Group Manager Caribbean, The Americas & Southern Africa, and Sebastiaan de Vries, Product & Purchasing Manager Aruba, Bonaire & Curacao, to discuss the possibility of having Arke/TUI provide service to St. Maarten once again.

"We are pleased that Arkefly is returning to St. Maarten/St. Martin and already have 14 hotels that will be included in their product line," disclosed Minister Connor. "The added airlift will assist St. Maarten in reaching the leisure travellers which targets a different clientele than those that may travel on KLM."

Arke mainly caters to Dutch holiday travellers, who will be able to book separate tickets or package tours via the TUI travel brands Arke, Kras and Holland International. A 9-day trip to St. Maarten will be available for prices starting at 699 euros and a flight ticket at 649 euros.

Arke's flights are also good news for the several thousand St. Maarteners living in the Netherlands. The high KLM and Air France fares have restricted many of them, especially students, from returning home for vacation.

Chairperson of Unified St. Maarten Connection (USC) in the Netherlands Melissa Gumbs deemed Arke's move positive. "Arke's re-introduction to the St. Maarten market is a positive step for improving our competitive advantage within the BENELUX (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, ED.) and the wider European market. We hope that both parties, Arke and St. Maarten, ensure that their management policies and approaches are in line with one another, so that this route can succeed," she said in an invited comment.

Arke flew to St. Maarten in 2008, but the flights generated insufficient volume and the operation was ceased. At that time, Arke served St. Maarten once a week, which makes it harder to market the destination. The start of the economic crisis in 2008 also contributed to reduced enthusiasm of Dutch travellers. Arke has high expectations this time due to the higher flight frequency, a better economic climate and the use of the new Dreamliner aircraft.

The Arke press release issued on Tuesday stated that each year St. Maarten welcomes 580,000 foreign tourists, including 17,000 visitors from the Netherlands. At the moment, Dutch travellers to St. Maarten can choose from three flights per week via KLM. With the two extra Arke Dreamliner flights, TUI expects to be able to bring an extra 15,000 Dutch tourists to St. Maarten each year, almost doubling the current number.

With a total of nine flights per week this year to the Dutch Caribbean, the islands are by far the most popular destination for travel organisation TUI Nederland. Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire draw a combined total of 200,000 tourists, business travellers and people visiting family on the islands. With 70 local employees, TUI is an important employer on the islands. The company is considering opening a sales office in St. Maarten to sell single tickets.

An appealing aspect for Arke's travellers is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft that the airline uses. In June 2014, Arke became the first Dutch airline to add this aircraft type to its fleet, with the second Dreamliner arriving in December. The third is scheduled for delivery in March 2015. The Dreamliner is lighter, quieter, more fuel-efficient, and therefore more environmentally friendly. Above all, it is more comfortable than the current generation of passenger aircraft.

Princess Juliana International Airport SXM Director Regina LaBega was also delighted with the return of Arke.

"Arke Fly left the market years ago and we maintained contact with TUI, the main tour operator. We were always convinced that the re entry of Arke Fly in the market, would allow for more seats from the Dutch Market, and ultimately a more competitive pricing strategy," she told The Daily Herald in an invited comment. "Lydia Haverman of Interreps, the country's (former) marketing firm in Holland worked hard for Arkefly's return to SXM."

LaBega listed several reasons for attempting to bring back Arke. Aside from pursuing a more competitive pricing strategy on the Holland – Sint Maarten route, she also noted the importance of diversification. Mixing airlines from various markets would make the island less dependent on one source market.

Bringing Arke back is also important for the island's hub function. In addition, Hotel RIU is an important partner for airport, and Arke has ownership in said resort. Sunwing is also a key carrier servicing the Canadian market, a key partner, and Arke Fly has ownership in said company as well, Labega said.

As for representation in the Benelux market, Minister Connor and the St. Maarten Tourism Bureau are going through the process of identifying and subsequently selecting a firm that would once again give St. Maarten an effective presence in this key market. It remains a priority for the Minister and has the urgent attention of the bureau as well, the Press Secretariat press release stated.

Pierre Beauperthuy shot dead in suspected robbery attempt

page1a240MARIGOT--Pierre Beauperthuy, owner of the well-known Old House Museum on Route de Quartier d'Orléans, was found dead on the porch of his home Tuesday morning.

Preliminary indications are that Beauperthuy returned home from a night out on the Dutch side only to confront robbers who apparently shot him before he reached the front door of his house, which was found still locked. A neighbour reported hearing two shots ring out during the night.

Pierre's half-sister Aline Richardson told The Daily Herald Pierre had been out at Munchies Bar and Restaurant in Sucker Garden on Monday night.

"The lady from Munchies told us he was there at her place, but he did not eat; he was only dancing," said Richardson. "When we were notified of his death, we assumed it was from natural causes because he had been unwell for the past two years. It seems that as he got inside the garden gate, they must have attacked him to rob him. We saw bullet casings on the path and bloodstains all the way up. It happened some time late last night.

"Pierre was very well known all over the island; he never hurt anyone and was always ready to laugh and joke. He had a big heart. It's very sad. He would have been 65 on March 9. We believe it was a robbery, because they had tried several times before."

Richardson said Pierre, who lived alone, had not gone into the house and the house keys were missing. Gendarmes called a locksmith to open the door. His car also was taken away to be dusted for fingerprints and other evidence. Pierre was known to have dogs, but it was not clear what happened to them that night.

The Gendarmerie issued few details, but confirmed a criminal investigation has been opened by the prosecutor in Basse-Terre.

"The victim died of gunshot wounds," Capitaine Emmanuel Maignan stated. "It's too early to say whether this was a murder or a suicide."

Pierre Beauperthuy was a descendant of six generations of Beauperthuys, one of the great St. Martin families. His home was partly turned into a museum, housing a fascinating collection of memorabilia, photos, personal objects and curios handed down through the generations that transformed Old House Museum into a popular visitor attraction.

Simpson Bay: Parliament must investigate land deal

page1b240SIMPSON BAY--Simpson Bay residents are pulling together after again being faced with uncertainty concerning the area's development.

The latest stir surrounds the possibility of long-term resident and business owner's eviction from a plot of land on Simpson Bay Road. After fighting in court, the community will submit a petition to Parliament today, March 4, demanding a thorough investigation into the "fishy business" surrounding the land deal.

Marlon Halley is facing the possibility of another court case or eviction after operating his maintenance business on the plot of family land for some 28 years. The plot is located next to what is commonly known as the old BBW building.

The long-lease rights of the family land were granted to EFB Properties by the Ministry of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure VROMI last year, a move contested by the community because of the circumstances surrounding the grant, as well as socio-cultural and environmental impacts of future development plans.

Things become more complicated, considering that the Kadaster describes the long-lease plot as being measured at 810 square metres. Since losing in court, Halley has moved his belongings, including a boat and large storage container, to a part of this plot that is not counted in the 810m3 measurement.

As it stands, the boundaries have been marked clearly, separating the EFB land from that still used by Halley. He says that he is within his rights and refuses to move. The group expects EFB representatives to try to evict him and said the police already had been called to the location. The group is preparing to contest any attempt at removal of the property, with one attempt being expected today, or soon.

The Daily Herald called Attorney Jeroen Veen yesterday afternoon and he confirmed that Halley was now claiming some land that had been filled. He said the filling was illegal and it could not work that way after the court had decided that the land no longer belonged to the family. He was not sure at the time whether EFB might try to evict or go to court again, but said he expected the situation to drag on.

Halley said the land had been filled more than 20 years ago, after the passing of Hurricane Luis. He said VROMI had visited him four weeks ago, reportedly in connection with illegal filling, but at the time he only had been clearing debris from the waterside.

Furthermore, he said the filling material was worth some US $210,000 and if he were to be kicked out he should be compensated at the very least. However he said the other issues concerning the rights of the heirs would remain if that were the case.

The community asserts that the Government never should have been given the rights to the land in the first place and that there are many heirs. Notices had been placed in the media for any owners to come forward, but this was said to have been vague and easy to miss. Most heirs also live off-island.

The community said that when one person had come forward the person, who lives in Aruba, had been paid "to go away" to the tune of NAf. 1 million. However, he was not the only heir to the land and many of the others have put a lien at the Kadastre's Office. These are the rightful heirs, the community insists.

They are also questioning why the same law firm, Lexwell Attorneys, could have represented Government as well as EDF. They said the entire process of land rights being transferred had happened unusually quickly – within a matter of months – while some residents had requested land 30 to 40 years ago and had not received any.

Halley said he had requested rights to the same property twice, but it never had been granted.

The residents clearly believe they are arguing until blue in the face and therefore have decided to approach Parliament with a petition demanding an investigation into the situation. As of yesterday evening, two full pages of signatures were shown to this newspaper and a few more were expected.

This is not the first time the community has appealed to Government formally about concerns relating to the area's development. They have been doing so for some time now, throughout the land-rights court proceedings as well as while zoning plans were being discussed. Sustainability, environmental impacts and cultural impacts also have been a concern.

If development on the plot of land in concern materialises, "a pier, hotel and facilities and amenities to service smaller cruise ships" are planned, for which an area of more than 5,500 square metres in water rights was requested for construction. The impact on the both the coastal environment and on the historic village is feared.

Govt to clamp down on ToT, wage tax defaulters

PHILIPSBURG--Businesses that are in default of their turnover tax (ToT) and wage tax payments can expect a visit from Tax Administration Marshals.

The Tax Administration has started to clamp down on businesses that are in default of their payment of these two taxes, department head Sherry Hazel said on Tuesday.

Some eight marshals already have started to visit businesses.

Tax Administration will also use the opportunity to clean up its database by removing businesses that have ceased operation, as it is suspected that some businesses have closed their doors and have not informed the Tax Administration. Hazel said there were some 6,000 businesses in Tax Administration's system, but not all were operational, as mail sent to some was being returned.

Hazel said the move to focus on wage tax and ToT was made after authorities noticed a "stabilisation" in revenues for these two areas in 2014 compared to 2013 although the Central Bank has indicated that the economy has grown, amongst other factors. She said there were businesses in the system with outstanding amounts and some that filed tax forms, but failed to pay. "We are not seeing the right amount in revenues," Hazel said.

She also noted that many new restaurants were popping up in the country and said some of these establishments could expect a visit from the Audit Department.

She urged businesses that are in default to "show good faith" and go in and make arrangements with collection officers at the Receiver's Office to settle their outstanding payments.

Businesses in default that are visited by a Marshal will have added fees for the Marshal's visit tagged on to their outstanding amount. This cost is one per cent of the amount of the summons for a minimum of NAf. 20 to a maximum of NAf. 5,000 plus NAf. 35 for every lien placed.

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