Legal policy advisor takes PM to court over dubious suspension

POSTED: 08/10/14 5:44 PM

Social Economic Council implodes under warring secretary-general

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – The Social Economic Council has virtually collapsed due to a conflict between its Secretary-General Gerard Richardson and legal policy advisor Arjen Alberts whose attorney Cindy Marica filed a lawsuit against the Minister of General Affairs Sarah Wescot-Williams yesterday to get clarity about his position. The SER suspended Alberts on April 29 on dubious and unclear grounds, a day before the interim chairman of the SER, Alberto Bute, left office.

Alberts has been the architect and author of many advices the SER has produced since he joined the organization in February 2012. These advices deal with a variety of subjects, from dollarization and labor-related issues to obligatory pensions.

During most of Albert’s tenure at the SER, the organization stood under chairman René Richardson – and there were never any problems. All that changed when Richardson had to step down because he had reached the age of 70.

On April 1, the power struggle within the SER began when the inexperienced Secretary-General Gerard Richardson sent a memo to Alberts about a possible complaint from the Department of Social Development. It suggests that there was “an insult to the people of St. Maarten with regard to their level of education” by Alberts and his colleague Bas Peters in a meeting with a civil servant identified as Angelique Gumbs.

“She came to pick a fight and Peters was ready to leave after a quarter of an hour,” Alberts says now about that meeting.

The next day, Alberts and Peters answer the memo with their version of what happened at the meeting.

On April 11, SG Richardson begins what Alberts describes as “a very confronting email conversation” about the delayed publication of the SER pension advice. This advice was presented to the prime minister in December of last year and should have been made public six weeks later.

On Tuesday April 15, Alberts steps down “under duress” as deputy Secretary-General in an attempt to defuse the situation. Board member Eveline Dijkhoffz proposes an amicable solution and mediation. But it is not to be: even an offer by Alberts to bring in Clarence Richardson as mediator is refused.

On April 29, the SER sends Alberts a suspension letter, signed by Chairman Arturo Bute and Secretary-General Gerard Richardson. The suspension is based on an unspecified complaint against Alberts by Angelique Gumbs of the Department of Social Development.

On May 7, Secretary-General Richardson sends an email to Prime Minister Wescot-
Williams, who has Personnel Affairs in her portfolio as minister of General Affairs. In this email, Richardson speaks of Albert’s “systematic insubordinate behavior and lack of respect for the hierarchy” within the SER and the government. Richardson complains about the fact that Alberts approached the board of the SER directly about his suspension, stating that a suspension can only go into effect upon receipt of a national decree.

Richardson goes on to use terms like “lack of respect towards authority” because he (Alberts) did not “include his direct superior the Secretary-General in his email” to the board.

On the same day, Richardson sent a letter to Marc Arnold at BAK (Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations) saying that he has been charged with an internal investigation against Alberts and he is fishing for information. Alberts worked for two years at BAK.

Two days later Alberts strikes back with a letter to SER Chairman Bute and Secretary-General Richardson. In it, he notes that his suspension is groundless, that he has not received a copy of the complaint in writing and that this complaint from the Department of Social Development is also directed at his colleague Bas Peters. Remarkably, Peters has not been suspended. While Alberts does not wish to drag his colleague Peters into the controversy, he notes that suspending him violates the principle of equal treatment.

Alberts furthermore states that in a meeting with the SER board that took place four days prior to his suspension, there was no talk about suspension at all.

Richardson writes back that the SER-board had stepped down on May 1. “In view of the fact that your letter is addressed to the former SER chairman and the fact that the SER currently has no competent authority in place, the advisory council cannot deal with your letter.”

Then, Alberts addresses Prime Minister Wescot-Williams in a letter dated May 13 in which he explains the situation described in this article and in which he asks her attention to resolve the matter. Alberts asked for an urgent meeting with the PM, but he receives no answer.

On June 2, Alberts meets with the PM’s senior advisor Hensley Plantijn who assures him that there is no national decree in existence or underway to suspend him. According to documents that this newspaper has obtained, Bute and SG Richardson asked for such a national decree, but Wescot-Williams put it aside because it was not accompanied by a formal resolution from the SER board.

Half June Alberts meets with the new chair of the SER, Oldine Bryson-Pantophlet. There he learns that the investigation into the complaint has turned into a complaint against his person. In the meantime, the information about Alberts has been removed from the SER website, his email account and his entrance pass to the SER-building were blocked.

In a meeting with the board on June 19, the message is that other staff members have declared that they no longer want to work with Alberts. The complaint from the Department of Social Development seems to be no longer an issue.

On June 30 Alberts has hired attorney Cindy Marica and she sends a letter to Wescot-Williams explaining the situation and summoning the PM to provide clarity about Albert’s position. On July 2, Marica sends a letter to the governor with a formal complaint against Secretary General Gerard Richardson, “for exceeding his authority in conducting an investigation into the person of Alberts and for providing false information about the existence of a national decree that confirms the suspension.”

On July 9, Wescot-Williams answers Marica’s letter from June 30, asking for two additional weeks to reply. Marica honors the request, but by August 5, there was still no reaction. The next day, Marica files the lawsuit on behalf of her client.

In this lawsuit Alberts asks the court to determine that the minister takes a decision within two weeks after the court ruling about his legal position at the SER, to remove the suspension letter from his personnel file and to pay study and travel expenses.

The latter demand seems a side issue, but it isn’t. The governor granted Alberts by national decree on August 22, 2013 compensation for a doctoral research entitled “The Social-Economic Development model of St. Maarten and Aruba.”

When Alberts claimed expenses he had made for this research, SG Gerard Richardson refused to pay, saying that he could not derive any entitlements from his study arrangement due to his suspension.

The case will go to court probably somewhere in November. Albert says that since the conflict erupted, the SER has virtually come to a standstill and that no significant production of advices has taken place.

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