PHILIPSBURG–The Prosecutor’s Office called for prison sentences against all five suspects on Wednesday during the first day of hearings in the so-called Buncamper case involving forgery of documents in connection with a land deal.
After reading out her closing arguments, Prosecutor Dounia Benammar requested the Court to sentence the two main suspects in this case, former Minister and Commissioner Maria Buncamper-Molanus (48) and her husband Claudius Buncamper (52), who is a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment, and Infrastructure VROMI, to eighteen months, six of which are to be suspended, on three years’ probation.
The Prosecutor also considered the other suspects in this case guilty of involvement in the dubious deal, which gave the Tax Department the go-by.
Notary F.E.G. (71), who allegedly forged the contested documents, may be facing 15 months in jail, five of which are to be suspended, on three years’ probation.
I.A.H. (47), the owner of St. Maarten Building Supplies N.V. (SBS), heard the Prosecutor call for 12 months, four of which are to be suspended, on three years’ probation. The Prosecutor requested four months suspended, on three years’ probation, for the alleged figure-head, or “straw man” in this case, Eco Green N.V. Director T.O.W. (69).
The issue revolves around a piece of Government-owned land on Soualiga Road which the Buncampers obtained in 2005. At first, they rented the land from the Island Territory, but in 2008 they obtained the property on long-lease. Several conditions were attached to the lease, which included stipulations that the land could not be subleased or made available to third parties.
‘Business as usual’
In notary F.E.G.’s words it is “business as usual” in St. Maarten for holders of long-lease property to “exploit it for themselves, to let it exploit, or to sell it for a big bag of money,” he had told an Investigating Judge.
According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the Buncampers did exactly that. Whereas the lease of leasehold land to third parties is not permitted, the Buncampers wanted to make a big profit from the rental construction in such a way that they would not have to pay taxes over these profits.
Initially, the Buncampers paid NAf. 22,000 and later NAf. 18,495 per month in long-lease. Right from the beginning, however, the couple made the property available to SBS against payment of US $5,000 a month. This amount was later increased to US $18,750 per month, in addition to a “key money” fee of US $750,000. Ultimately, the Buncampers received US $3 million in this way.
As the couple did not want to pay any tax over their additional income, a solution was needed and found with the notary’s aid in establishing “dummy holding” Eco Green. Although T.O.W. was the official director, the case file shows that the Buncampers were the factual owners, the Prosecution said.
Loopholes in the legal system make it impossible to prevent land speculation in St. Maarten. This is detrimental to Government’s coffers, but not at the heart of the accusations, it was stated.
It is primarily held against suspects they knowingly and willingly included untrue statements in official legal documents, including the commercial lease agreement between Eco Green and SBS, mortgage documents and a deed concerning the right of long lease. “That is called lying, and in the Court’s language it is called forgery,” the Prosecutor explained.
In a separate indictment, the Buncampers and I.A.H. were also charged with money laundering. Due to a big mistake made by former Prosecutor Gonda van der Wulp during a search in the Buncamper residence evidence was illegally obtained. During the search, which was related to money laundering, pictures were taken of documents, some of which fell under the law guarding the privacy of communication between suspect and lawyer.
Because it may seem that the Prosecutor had not acted with integrity in this case, the Prosecutor’s Office had asked to be declared inadmissible in the money laundering case during a previous court hearing. On Wednesday, the Prosecutor called for the acquittal of all suspects of membership in a criminal organisation.
In formulating the demands, the Prosecutor took into account that the Buncampers were both public servants and should have served the Country’s interests. Instead, “their motive was just to make as much profit as possible, without actually doing anything.”
The Prosecutor’s Office estimates they have earned approximately NAf. 635,000, plus a package of shares, which was sold for US $1,145,000. Therefore, the Buncampers may also be facing dispossession claims on these “illegally obtained assets.”
Notary F.E.G. stands accused of having deliberately included falsities in authentic deeds. T.O.W. was “in the middle of it all” and received US $1,500 for being the director of an inactive company, the Prosecutor said.
Ultimately, SBS and its director I.A.H. obtained the plot of land, after Country St. Maarten gave permission to the Buncampers to sell the right of long lease in 2013. The “shadow construction” was sanctioned after allegations appeared in Todaynewspaper about their involvement in a “dubious and immoral” land deal.
The suspects claimed the Prosecutor’s Office had it all wrong and had difficulties with the interpretation of civil law. All said there was nothing wrong with the contested constructions, which primarily served to “provide for” the elderly and visually-impaired T.O.W., who is an old friend of the Buncamper family.
Buncamper-Molanus said she was “appalled” when she was accused of wrongdoings, “while I have the reputation of being straight, and critical of those who are not.”
Following the allegations, she resigned as Minister of Health and Labour, “which I did against my will.” The opposition in Parliament had filed a motion calling on her to step down on December 21, 2010.
Claudius Buncamper said he had wanted to arrange the lease of the land in an official manner using the legal expertise of a notary. “We did not want to settle it under a tree…I do not understand why the Buncampers are being singled out. Our current Minister of Finance did the same thing in Simpson Bay,” he said emotionally.
Notary F.E.G. was equally emotional in his efforts to convince the Judge of his innocence. “I deny the allegations most emphatically,” he said in a broken voice.
Attorney-at-law Geert Hatzmann was the first lawyer to respond to the Prosecutor’s demand. He called upon the Court to acquit I.A.H. “Against his will, my client has become an actor in a very bad movie,” the lawyer said, pointing out that his client had not been involved in Eco Green’s establishment.
“My client had his back against the wall. Leaving the plot of land would have meant the end to his company. Due to the collapsing housing market my client could no longer meet his financial obligations to Eco Green but he never had the intention to commit fraud,” Hatzmann said in calling for his client’s acquittal.
The trial with continue today, Thursday, at 9:30am, starting with the other lawyers pleading on their clients’ behalf, followed by a second round of arguments.