Answers will have to wait until mid-January: Parliament wants clarity about housing foundation

POSTED: 12/30/14 12:03 AM

St. Maarten – Prime Minister Marcel Gumbs answered the call to appear in Parliament as the acting minister of public housing within 72 hours after he was sworn in on Friday. Members of Parliament appreciated that, even though Gumbs sent them on their way with a flea in their ear, after listening to questions about the chaos of the St. Maarten Housing Development foundation for more than two hours.

The minister brought to mind the words he spoke on Friday in the constituting meeting where his team officially took over the reins: “The country needs tranquility, stability, civility and prosperity.”

Furthermore, Gumbs noted: “Integrity has been a buzz word this year. That also means following proper procedures, like finding the facts before jumping to conclusions. This government will practice integrity, not just talk about it.”

Gumbs said that he would share some of the information with parliamentarians in a closed-door Central Committee meeting, but he did not offer a specific timeframe. “It could be in 99 days, in could be in ten days, it could be on Thursday,” he said, probably not realizing that everybody will be celebrating Christmas on that particular day.

Parliament President Dr. Lloyd Richardson said that he would aim for mid-January, given the fact that MPs will be away to Aruba on January 4 for the Inter-Parliamentary Kingdom Consultation.

From the get go it was clear that MPs were not gathered to draw blood in this meeting. Twelve MPs were present. Tamara Leonard gave notice of absence, NA faction-leader William Marlin noted that Silveria Jacobs is home for medical reasons and UP faction-leader Franklin Meyers informed the Parliament that party-leader Theo Heyliger is currently off-island.

The request for the meeting came from William Marlin and Christopher Emmanuel (National Alliance), Sarah Wescot-Williams (Democratic Party) and Leona Marlin-Romeo (independent).

The meeting was about the request by the housing foundation to Government Accountant Bureau Soab to carry out a forensic investigation, the board’s decision to suspend director Henry Lynch and two other members of the management team and the intervention by (now former) Vromi-Minister Maurice Lake to stop the Soab-probe.

Prime Minister Marcel Gumbs, in his role as acting Vromi-minister showed up with his support staff – senior policy advisor Joe Richardson (like Gumbs a former informateur in the process that resulted in the current government), legal advisor Marieke van Zadelhoff and the freshly appointed press secretary Mike Granger.

National Alliance leader William Marlin took the lead as the first speaker and he set the tone for what the Parliament really is after: clarity. “The housing foundation has several hundreds of tenants and these people read and hear things, but there is no clarity,” Marlin said. “There have been statements from the former Vromi-Minister (Maurice Lake, ed.) that are completely the opposite of statements by a board member (Elston Fos, ed.) and an attorney (Jairo Bloem, ed.).”

Marlin noted that the roles have changed over the weekend. “The prime minister is here in a double function and his predecessor is now a Member of Parliament. The new minister is not personally responsible, but there is continuity in government. We would like to know what the government’s position is.”

Marlin sought clarity about statements former Minister Lake had made about the (il)legality of the board, his statement that the board acted prematurely by suspending its director, and his statement that the board should have 7 members, while in fact the correct number is 5.

“Can this board take decisions and are these decisions binding?” Marlin asked. He furthermore wants to know whether former Minister Lake put his order to the Soab (to stop the investigation) in writing. “I want to see what he wrote and what the reasons were.”

From another angle, Marlin wondered about the minister’s authority to do what he did. “Is it the prerogative of the minister to intervene? Can he unilaterally order Soab to call off an activity?” Lastly, Marlin asked who exactly are suspended by the SMHDF-board and what the conditions of the suspension are.

“Too often we see board members who sit on the chair of management, taking decisions that are for management to take, rather than supervising and then you have ministers that go and sit on the chair of the supervisory board.”

The SMHDF is not a government-owned company, Marlin pointed out. “The board says it did everything according to procedure, but I am not sure how this went. The minister reportedly knew what was going on and he went directly to Soab.”

Independent MP Cornelius de Weever attempted to throw a spanner in the works, by asking for the articles of incorporation of the foundation. When it turned out they were not immediately available, De Weever asked to adjourn the meeting to a later date, a request Leona Marlin-Romeo seconded. The opposition objected, and President Dr. Lloyd Richardson overruled the request and continued with the meeting. This newspaper has had a copy of the articles of incorporation in its possession for more than a week.

Christopher Emmanuel (NA) asked who called for the director’s suspension, whether the minister knew about it, if he called for it, and what the reasons for the suspension are. “One board member is accusing the minister of knowing the facts, but where is the proof? That initiated this conspiracy for this young man being suspended.”

Emmanuel furthermore wants to know who supersedes whom: the minister over the supervisory board, or the other way around.

Wescot-Williams (DP) repeated the questions she earlier sent in writing to the media, and Frans Richardson (United St. Maarten party) suggested that the former minister and current MP Maurice Lake could guide his colleagues.

Lake took him up on his word, noting that there are three sides to the story: “Your side, my side and the truth.”

“We should present the facts to the people of St. Maarten,” Lake said, adding that he had discussed a different structure with the previous board. He said that three board members met the requirements that follow from corporate governance legislation. “Sometimes you put people on the board who do not understand their responsibilities,” he noted.

Lake told Parliament “that everything was put on hold” after two board members resigned. In October, shortly after each other Keith Franca and Leo Chance made their positons available.

“I did not give any instruction to suspend management,” Lake said, “And I gave no instruction to Soab to stop the investigation.”

He pointed out that he had called a meeting with the board for last week Thursday – a day before all hell broke loose – but that the board members did not show up due to confused email communication.

“I agree with MP Emmanuel,” UP-faction leader Franklin Meyers said. “If you are doing something wrong, you will have to deal with the consequences. But we have become our own worst enemies.”

Meyers asked whether recommendations made in earlier reports from Soab and KPMG had been put in practice at the housing foundation. “One of the members of the board was incarcerated,” he continued. “How does this affect the legality of the board?”

Independent Cornelius de Weever made a rather odd remark, based on the assumption that young people who come back to work on the island often end up in hot water. “We are almost busy with our own genocide,” he said.

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