Judge hears requests for witnesses in Colade-case

PHILIPSBURG–The Court of First Instance on Wednesday heard the lawyers’ requests for the hearing of witnesses during the procedural hearing in the so-called Colade case. This case involves embezzlement, theft and forgery committed at the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau (STB) and East Caribbean Destination (ECD) Management Company.

Main suspects in this case are former Head of the Tourist Bureau Regina LaBega (57), and ECD’s managing directors Fabian Badejo (66) and E.A.I. F. (37).

All suspects, including ECD, will have to answer to charges of embezzlement in employment, theft, forgery and tax evasion.

The suspects were arrested May 30, 2016, based on “complaints” filed by then Head of the Finance Department Bas Roorda in November 2010. They were released three days later.

Detectives have been busy with the investigation into staff working at STB for quite some time. National Detectives conducted house searches at five different locations on October 15, 2015. The investigation resulted in a number of sub-investigations, which led to an extensive case file.

Among charges is the embezzlement of US $142,000 in payments to ECD from an account at J.P. Morgan Chase Bank in New York which were not meant to cover the operational cost of the New York Tourist Office NTO, or for activities and expenditures which were directly related to the North-American market.

The suspects are also charged with money-laundering to the amount of US $140,000 and with embezzlement of almost US $27,500 at the Tourist Bureau between December 3, 2008, and October 21, 2010, in using Chase Bank cheques for other purposes.

LaBega will also have to answer to allegations that she committed forgery in writing a job letter.

Criminal organisation

All defendants are also suspected of membership in a criminal organisation between September 2008 and June 2011, aimed at committing crimes, such as embezzlement and evasion of profit, income and wage tax.

Roorda filed a criminal complaint against LaBega, Head of Marketing of the Tourist Bureau Edward Dest and civil servant L.K. 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 Chase Bank in New York with money to fund NTO 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.

In Dest’s case, which was already tried in 2015, 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.

Regular procedure

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, Berlin and to Panama for visits to Copa Airlines, he claimed.

Other charges include the alleged double payment of “per diem” allowances to the total amount of US $1,800; hotel expenditures in connection with the 2010 Sea Trade cruise industry trade show in Miami; payment of US $2,544 for a Christmas dinner for Tourist Office staff at Fusion Restaurant on Front Street without Government approval; payment of US $4,548 in hotel fees charged by Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort and Casino in connection with the visit of a Brazilian fashion magazine crew for a photo shoot and payments of a total of US $12,500 to House of Nehesi Publishers in connection with Boardwalk Mas 2010.

Dest was sentenced to a largely symbolic sentence of one day suspended, with one day’s probation, On March 25, 2015.

Attorney-at-law Shaira Bommel on Wednesday filed requests for the hearing of no fewer than 13 witnesses, including Roorda, Government Controller Alex Richardson and (former) members of the Executive Council Frans Richardson, Hiro Shigemoto, Miguel de Weever, Franklyn Richards, Roy Marlin, Xavier Blackman, Theo Heyliger and then Island Secretary Joane Dovale-Meit.

According to the lawyer these witnesses were all to shed light on the question whether the expenditures were made with or without Government’s approval.

She also called for the quarterly reports and an audit report by Government Accountant Bureau SOAB into the alleged “irregularities” to be included in the case file.

The Prosecutor objected to the hearing of all witnesses, as these were already heard by the National Detectives and the Judge of Instruction.

The Prosecutor said that no written guidelines were found concerning the destination of the monies in the Chase Bank account. The Prosecutor stated that NTO’s annual accounts had not been received by investigators and that SOAB audits concerned the time after the alleged crimes were committed.

The Judge said that he did not concern himself to be “bound in any way” by the Court’s decisions in the case against Dest. “This is a different case against different suspects and I have to make my own considerations,” he said.

The Judge said Bommel sought clarity as two who had the final responsibility in these matters and in this light he granted the request to hear Richardson, Roorda and Dest as witnesses. The Judge also granted Labega’s lawyer the right to select one former Member of the Executive Council to be heard as a witness. The Judge said that more efforts should be made to get the audit reports above the table.

Bommel said she would submit the name of the preferred witness to the Court after consultation with her client.

The Judge granted attorney Safira Ibrahim’s request to hear Alex Richardson as a witness in the case of Badejo and E.A.I.F., but turned down requests to also hear De Weever and Blackman. The requests by ECD’s lawyer Peggy Ann Brandon to hear four witnesses in the tax case were all granted. The trial hearings will not be taking place before September or October this year.

Source: The Daily Herald https://www.thedailyherald.sx/islands/65812-judge-hears-requests-for-witnesses-in-colade-case