PHILIPSBURG–Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunications (TEATT) Stuart Johnson’s policy advisor Regina Labega (59) and East Caribbean Destination (ECD) Management Company managing directors Fabian Badejo (68) and E.A.I.F. headed to Court on Wednesday to answer to charges of embezzlement, forgery, tax evasion and membership in a criminal organisation.
The so-called “Colade” case involves alleged embezzlement and forgery committed at the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau (STB), STB’s New York office and ECD between December 2008 and October 2010. Labega was the head of STB at the time.
The Prosecutor considered all suspects guilty as charged and called for the most severe punishment for Labega: a NAf. 500,000 fine and a five-year ban from the civil service.
If it were up to the Prosecutor, Badejo and E.A.I.F. would both be sentenced to NAf. 140,000 fines and ECD to NAf. 100,000.
The suspects were arrested May 30, 2016, based on “complaints” filed by then-head of the Finance Department Bas Roorda in November 2010, and released three days later. 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, 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 directly related to the North American market.
The suspects are also charged with money-laundering to the amount of $140,000 and with embezzlement of almost $27,500 at the Tourist Bureau between December 3, 2008, and October 21, 2010, by using Chase Bank cheques for other purposes.
Labega also has to answer to allegations that she committed forgery in writing a job letter, and Badejo to charges that he forged a 2009 tax return form and a letter of protest stating that he was “unemployed while being supported by family.”
All defendants are also suspected of membership between September 2008 and June 2011 in a criminal organisation aimed at committing crimes such as embezzlement and evasion of profit, income and wage tax.
Roorda filed a criminal complaint against Labega, Tourist Bureau head of Marketing 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. He withdrew their suspensions on December 2, 2010, as there was lack of evidence of any wrongdoing, he said at the time.
Dest was sentenced by the Court of First Instance on March 25, 2015, to a symbolic one day in prison for “complicity in the deliberate misappropriation of money or monetary instruments as an official.” The complaint referred to an account at Chase Bank in New York with money to fund the 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 $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 defendants denied all allegations and claimed they had done everything according to the book and with the consent of the then-Commissioner of Tourism and the Executive Council. Their lawyers Shaira Bommel and Safira Ibrahim pleaded for their clients’ acquittal of all charges, including the evasion of taxes.
All three defendants claimed they had acted in good faith where the filing of tax returns was concerned, as they had relied on their financial experts to do the work for them.
The essence of the Prosecution’s accusations against the suspects is that they used ECD as managing directors and its sole owner (Labega) for misappropriating money, for money laundering and fraud, and for making false tax declarations.
The suspects also denied these allegations, with Labega stating that she had no role whatsoever in the company, even though the Prosecutor presented documents stating otherwise.
The hearings in the Colade case will resume today, Thursday, with the Prosecutor responding to the defence, after which the lawyers will be granted a second round of pleadings. The Judge will close the hearings after the defendants have given their last words.
The Court is expected to give its decisions in three weeks.