By Michael R. Granger
PHILIPSBURG–When she forced the hand of the Prosecutor’s Office in 2014, to bring the “melee” to a close through the judicial system, former Minister Maria Buncamper-Molanus at that point had no reason to be fearful of the Justice system.
She was, after all, seeking justice after four years of life-changing events, confident that she never had and still had not committed a crime. She believed in the legal system and trusted that the Prosecutor would do its due diligence, tell the truth, clear her name and spare her family prolonged, unfair public scrutiny.
Buncamper-Molanus now believes it was a mistake not to be fearful of the Justice system.
According to Buncamper-Molanus, the ongoing court case has taught her something significant; the right thing is not necessarily what the law says it is, but what some people, in especially the Prosecutor’s Office, believe it to be despite evidence to the contrary.
Is she guilty of a crime? “Definitely not,” she stressed, “We are accused of various criminal acts because the Prosecutor’s Office simply do not understand the subject of economic transfer, the relevant transactions executed by the notary and the relevant tax legislation in connection with this transfer.”
On April 7, the Court of First Instance found Buncamper-Molanus, her husband Claudius Buncamper and others all guilty of committing forgery with authentic deeds and filing falsified tax returns in connection with a land deal on long lease.
On the flip side, there were also charges that were thrown out and of which the Buncampers were found innocent – destruction of evidence, money laundering and being members of a criminal organisation.
The Buncampers immediately appealed the verdict and hence the case is categorised as ongoing.
Now, six years after what she termed “the start of this nightmare” in 2010 and suffering every day as people “understandably pulled away from me,” Buncamper-Molanus wants to speak in an exclusive interview with The Daily Herald.
Why, after six years, after a verdict and after a successful Parliamentary campaign when you fell just short of a seat in Parliament due to your position on a list, have you chosen to speak?
“Six years is a long time, and during that time I have had the opportunity to speak to many people who, to my surprise, either have been or are going through a similar experience. In most cases their experiences do not reach any page of a newspaper, but it does not mean that their experiences are any less burdensome than mine.
“I just felt that it was time. Time to talk about it as much or as limited as I can, considering the fact that the case is in appeal. After six years I’m letting the people know how my life has been turned upside down.”
Why did you not defend your name?
“I tried to defend my name on the floor of Parliament, but some weren’t out for the truth, they were out for my position as Minister. I defended myself in court where until this day I’m still busy.”
Do you think that had you defended your name and honour more vigorously the outcome might have been different?
“I don’t think so, as the truth didn’t seem in my opinion to be the most important factor in my case. The thought, of course, has crossed my mind, but then there are very few people that get away with saying whatever they want, and even in those cases I think luck does run out. I think we did the smart thing, albeit the most difficult, by remaining silent with the hope that justice is done. The proverbial jury, of course, is still out on that.”
Both you and your husband have stated emphatically that you are not guilty of any crime. Do you still maintain this position?
“Absolutely! From the onset we maintained our innocence and today we still do. We did not sneak under a tamarind tree to concoct a deal. We did not create a strategy never yet applied by many others in the Dutch Kingdom. We did what should still be considered the proper thing to do by going to a notary of law, obtaining advice and acting accordingly.”
Then what are the criminal activities you were charged with? Explain why in your opinion these are not criminal offences.
“The so-called criminal activities are based on a charge of using a bogus construction; passed by the notary and that we didn’t pay the taxes we should have. In our opinion, we did not pass a bogus construction by the notary and we did not, in accordance with the law, have to pay any taxes.
“The Prosecutor has no clue of how the tax law regarding income derived from the sale of economical rights of a piece of land is applied to the income filing of a person in St. Maarten. In conformity with St. Maarten law, it is not considered taxable income and thus that income is not filed.
“For all these years I’ve wondered what I have done illegally and why I’m in court. We have read every single document that forms part of this court case, and in not one document does it state emphatically that we did something in violation of the law which they can or have proven. Words used are ‘We believe,’ ‘we think,’ ‘we feel,’ ‘it looks like’ and ‘we assume.’ Based on these words that obviously underscore their lack of understanding, we are told we committed a crime.”
Have you at any time collected US $3 million?
“The total sum of monies paid to us until this day is not even seven per cent of US $3 million.”
Did you falsify documents?
“No we never did, as the deed was made solely by the notary and we signed it believing it was correct and having no reason to think otherwise.”
How do you respond to the notion that you violated the terms of the leased land not to sublet to third parties for commercial use?
“We never violated the lease agreement as we told the user to pay the long lease yearly cannon at the Receiver’s, which he did by cheque until we could regulate the matter properly, as we had requested permission to sublet since 2005 by means of a letter to the Government, but never got an answer.”
Since your case has come to light, there have been no rules/legislation changes to the rights of long lease in St. Maarten. What does that say to you?
“That from day one it had nothing to do with the land deal.”
Do you believe that this was a case of what some have called “reverse class justice”?
“I am not sure if I clearly understand the term ‘class justice’ or ‘reverse class justice,’ especially since I have believed in our Justice system. On the other hand, it is this very same Justice system that is the cause of the now-six-years-long nightmare, but it is not over yet, so there is hope.
“Perhaps it is misplaced justice. Someone somewhere is of the opinion that someone here in St. Maarten should be judicated for a crime to give substantiation to the cries of corruption. This is certainly a way to do it.
“The bigger issue is that I now believe that there are many people who do not get a fair chance within our Justice system because they are unable to involve themselves in their defence or pay enough for it to be done for them. That is very concerning and an issue that in fact needs proper attention.”
Do you or your legal team know of any other instances in which the Prosecutor’s Office applied the same interpretation of tax/civil law, etc.?
“It has happened on numerous occasions, but the procedure was that they would audit the books and if they found irregularities they would call the taxpayer (them) in and find an administrative settlement.
“With us there was never an audit done, but the Prosecutor started a criminal investigation outright. If anything, this is interesting, but is it reverse class justice or is it a lack of justice or maybe we talk about ‘gelijkheidbeginsel,’ ‘the principal of equality?’ I have had conversations with people who have been very vocal over the years, but are now reluctant to express their opinion publicly on this or other similar matters in fear of being targeted.
“Wow! … It is the first time I have actually said those words out loud and it scares me.”
What are the instances of prosecutorial misconduct that your legal team identified that you claimed should have been enough for the case to be thrown out.
“In our opinion, there have been many foul-ups – acts of prosecutorial misconduct – with serious consequences for us, ranging from intimidation of witnesses, to falsifying documents by the former prosecutor which was taken off the case, to lying (simply not conveniently being able to remember what they did say six months ago); inconsistent statements by law enforcement officers that all were in the same place at the same time; intimidation of my lawyer by charging him with misconduct as a lawyer; threatening to arrest us if we didn’t come in for questioning; just to name a few.
“Our lawyer filed arguments with some 17 violations, of which, by the way the Public Prosecutor acknowledged many and replaced the Public Prosecutor who was handling the case at the time. It was published in the media that illegal photos were taken by the Public Prosecutor and the Prosecutor’s Office found these violations to be so grave that she was removed and several charges against us were requested to be considered inadmissible as a result.”
It has been reported that the Prosecutor at one point denied allegations of a political trial, stating, “The fact that one suspect is a politician does not automatically make a case a political one,” while on the other hand it was reported that the Prosecutor took into account that the Buncampers were both public servants with a role-model function and should have served the Country’s interests, and also stated, “On the other hand, she was a representative of the people of whom one may expect even more that she sticks to the law.” How do you respond to these statements?
“The two latter statements betray the former so it’s pure, obvious, political prosecution and in fact, judicial persecution. From day one we stated that we have been tried by the media, as one newspaper editor found something was fishy as per his own writing of February 27, 2015.
“It was the editor that stated that every story he wrote from 2011 until 2014 was based on what he got from the former Head Prosecutor Hans Mos. It was with the help of the Prosecutor’s Office and in particular Hans Mos that political prosecution took place and judicial persecution continues to take place.”
To watch friends and associates pull away from you because of the charges must not have been easy to bear. How did this case affect your family and how are you and your family coping?
“This case has had and is still having significant effect on my direct family, my close friends and my business. It is human nature to avoid being associated with a criminal or a suspect. Bear in mind that as early as 2011, the Prosecutor’s Office had been talking about starting a criminal investigation against us, but they didn’t know when. Then people started to move away. I finally took the Prosecutor to Court and asked the judge to stop this melee.
“Some say that that was my mistake as my effort to seek justice was perceived as a ‘dare.’ There are those who say I should have just kept quiet and it would have eventually gone away. I don’t know, perhaps, but up until that point I had no reason to be fearful of our Justice system as I know I did not commit a crime and as such should have nothing to fear with judicial intervention to bring this ‘melee’ to a close. I guess I was mistaken.”
Much of this case centred on the position of Mr. Walters. Why was he such a central figure and how is he a central figure in your life?
“The case didn’t centre on Mr. Walters at all. Mr. Walters was given a great opportunity to be able to do business at no personal start-up expense. It seems that in St. Maarten wealth and success are reserved for a limited few that have a certain profile, if you will.
“Although it may sound strange coming from me because of my physical appearance, but maybe if I looked more like my mother I could simply say ‘people that look like you and me’ are not allowed to make it in St. Maarten. Walters has been a family friend for almost 50 years. My father-in-law Anthony Sr. and Walters were friends for over 30 years prior to his death some 16 years ago and that friendship continues up until the day of today and has extended itself to the next generation in both our families.
“Mr. Walters was given an opportunity for himself, a comfortable retirement and to be able to leave something significant for his children, but that unfortunately is gone. Why? That is indeed the question we hope will be answered someday, if not in a court of law perhaps during an unsuspecting conversation at an unsuspecting place and time. So in other words: someday, somewhere, somehow.”
Is there a legal recourse for you to restore your good name and reputation from all of this in the eyes of the public?
“I believe the legal recourse means very little in the public eye. I get the impression that there is a growing lack of trust in the Justice system.
“While we on one hand could not have imagined this case having even gotten this far, I am still somewhat shocked that that we were found guilty of committing any crime at all, but then you hear through the grapevine that there are those who believe the Justice system is rigged, and some even believe we have the prosecutors and the judges in our pockets. So restoring our name will, of course, start with a favourable verdict, but it will just be the beginning.”
If not, how do you counter trial and conviction by media and the court, and regain what is perceived to be the loss of public trust?
“I do not believe we have lost all the public’s trust in what we do, but we have lost a lot because of what has transpired over the last six years and continues to transpire. There will always be those who believe that we did something wrong and that’s fine. I’m not here to seek salvation from one and all. What I do hope for is a fair opportunity and playing field to rebuild our lives in the only place we call home.”
Is your political career over?
“I would say absolutely not. I have a strong desire to continue to serve the people of this country and there’s nobody that can state I have not delivered proper work when I was in office. It’s because of my work ethic and performance. Perhaps I worked too hard and got too much done, which may have been a little threatening to others, just perhaps. Perhaps not going along to get along made me difficult to work with. Perhaps I was sacrificed politically to set an example of what happens in the arena.
“What is crystal clear, though, is that St. Maarten has not given up on me. My support grew during the last election with the UP compared to my previous run on the DP.
“My experiences, as difficult as they have been, continue to give me additional ammunition to be that voice that has been too silent for too long. I am not alone in my fight. There are many like us going through the same as we are, and there will be many more if we don’t start talking about it and exposing what people in St. Maarten go through when they get on the radar of the Public Prosecutor’s Office or those who set their agendas.”
Have you been in contact with many of the 200-plus people that voted for you in 2014, and how have they reacted since the verdict?
“People are amazingly supportive and so many people are praying with and for us. We are being continuously encouraged to continue the fight. My supporters want to see me in active politics again, representing them. They too believe that now I have even more to give. It’s unjust, what they are doing to me, and everyone I spoke to has encouraged me to postulate myself and run for office. That is a very good feeling as for me. The people have started seeing through the smokescreen that went up since December 23, 2010.”
If one of these voters tells you honestly that he or she has been swayed by the “trial by media” as well as details the Prosecutor presented, how would that conversation with that voter go?
“I would state my case. The media – in particular the Today newspaper – have very conveniently only reported basically the Prosecutor’s side of the story. In all fairness though, other than after my resignation as Minister, we have not provided our side. After all, the Prosecutor’s Office continuously stated in the media that they would start an investigation. It seemed to us that the logical thing to do was to remain silent. This, however, did allow for the one-sided story to live a life of its own.”
Are there any regrets whatsoever?
“Regrets – I have a few, but it would have involved me compromising my principles, my work ethic and what I simply thought was best for our island. Though I think my main problem is my tendency to trust people who I probably should not have trusted and God knows I was warned (smile). But, I am who I am and if you can’t trust people you live a very paranoid life and that seems very stressful to me.
“As I trusted too many people wholeheartedly when they, from the onset, wanted to destroy my family and I and for reasons to this day unclear to me or my family. Sometimes, I wonder how much you can dislike someone and to what lengths will you go to destroy people. I may have underestimated the sensitivity level of fellow politicians or said differently that having an opposing opinion is considered being against them.
“Maybe I lack the necessary political sensitivity. I was raised to make it clear where you stand. It avoids confusion down the line. At least that is how I was raised.”
Source: Daily Herald
Maria: It was a mistake not to be fearful of our Justice system