Court exonerates Tourist Bureau marketing director Edward Dest 

POSTED: 03/30/15 12:47 PM

Judge: “You do not deserve punishment”

St. Maarten – The expression ‘mixed feelings’ probably describes best what Edward Dest must have experienced when the Court in First Instance declared him guilty of embezzlement yesterday and heard Judge Maria Paulides tell him that he does not deserve punishment for a trial that has been hanging over his head for almost five years.

The court sentenced Dest to a symbolic one-day conditional prison sentence with one day of probation. The embezzlement charge does not mean that Dest stole money – it only means that he used money from an American bank account that was set up for the financing of the New York-based office of the Tourist Bureau for other purposes. Self-enrichment was never part of the equation.

The court dismissed all arguments from defense attorney Janna Westra aimed at declaring the prosecution inadmissible. One of these arguments was the violation of the equality-principle. There are two other suspects in this investigation: former Tourist Bureau director Regina Labega – currently the managing director of the airport – and Lisa Coffi.

“Thus argument fails because the public prosecutor’s office has not taken a decision to prosecute yet,” the court ruling states. “The prosecutor’s office did not have to take that decision yet either. The sole circumstance that the defendant in this case has extorted a decision to prosecute in his case does not mean that the prosecutor’s office also has to prosecute the other suspects in the same investigation.”

This does not mean that Labega and Coffi are off the hook. Press officer Tineke Kamps confirmed to this newspaper yesterday that no decision has been taken yet to prosecute Labega and Coffi. “The investigation is still ongoing. I cannot even say when the investigation is expected to be completed.”

Kamps furthermore stated that the prosecutor’s office understands the court’s considerations and that it is happy with the guilty-verdict on important points and with the rejection of all arguments to declare the prosecution inadmissible.

On November 4, 2010, then Tourism and Economic Affairs Minister Franklin Meyers suspended Tourist Bureau director Regina Labega and marketing manager Edward Dest, based on “an ongoing investigation into discrepancies found by the Finance Department.”

When the two threatened to go to court, the minister lifted the suspension on December 1, 2010, but at the same time, he filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office against Labega and Dest for embezzlement. Ever since that day, the possibility of a trial has been hanging over the head of the suspects. Dest took the initiative to put an end to the procedures last year and he obtained a court ruling that forced the prosecutor’s office to complete the investigation against him within three months. The deadline for completion was April 2014.

The charges Dest faced mainly have to do with payments he executed from a Chase bank account in the United States for matters that were unrelated to the objective of this account – namely financing the New York-branch of the Tourist Bureau.

Payments were made for travel, per diems, hotel accommodation and even a Christmas dinner at the Fusion restaurant – all activities for which the Tourist Bureau had not received any permission from the government. Included in the payments is an amount of $10,000 to House of Nehesi publishers that is linked to Fabian Badego, who is reportedly very close to Regina Labega.

The court found Dest guilty of making payments for the Christmas dinner to the Fusion restaurant on December 24, 2009 ($2,544.60), payment for a trip to Panama, a payment to the Sonesta Great Bay Beach hotel and the payment to House of Nehesi.

In spite of this evidence, the court was remarkably lenient to Dest, noting that the element of self-enrichment is not part of the charges. In other words – Dest used the money from the American bank account for other things than it had been earmarked for – but not to line his own pocket. The funds in the Chase-bank account were earmarked to cover the operational costs of the New York Tourist Office – and Dest knew this.

“With the prosecution, the court is of the opinion that next to the direct costs of the New York Tourism Office, the objective of these funds could also be considered as being meant for “the tourism in St. Maarten in a direct relation to the North-American market.”

In the court’s opinion, four payments – among them the ones to House of Nehesi and the Fusion restaurant – do not stand in a direct relation to the North-American market. “Therefore these funds have been taken away from their allocation.”

In favor of Dest, the court considered that most of these payments – with the exception of the Christmas dinner at the Fusion restaurant (for staff members of the tourist bureau) had been used for the benefit of tourism in St. Maarten. “The defendant was convinced that he acted in the interest of public service,” the ruling states.

Considering the fact that the payments were made more than five years ago and the defendant’s clean criminal record, the court ruling states that declaring the defendant guilty without punishment would have been the most proper reaction. The current criminal code does not allow such a decision. Therefore, the court sentenced Dest to a symbolic conditional prison sentence of one day, with a one-day probation period.

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