Packed house at St. Maarten Parliament: “Leaked documents national security issue”

POSTED: 03/28/14 10:47 AM

St. Maarten – It was a packed house yesterday afternoon in Parliament to debate developments at the Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM), and all 15 Members of Parliament (MPs) attended the plenary session. A number of Simpson Bay residents also showed up in their protest shirts to make their point against any further expansion of the airport.

The meeting was called by the National Alliance (NA) faction in Parliament, and they were the first to question the Minister. The main issues raised during the meeting were allegations of outsourcing of jobs from certain departments and services, job security as a result, and retail concessions at the airport as well as the internal documents that were leaked to the media recently.

“This is a national security issue,” Minister of Transportation Ted Richardson, the government’s shareholder representative, said in reaction to the leaked documents. He mentioned too that “leaking of this information can bring us in great financial jeopardy,” saying the airport contributes to over 33% of the total GDP. The Minister said he had a difficult time separating genuine questions from political statements.

The airport is currently looking at all its legal options, since all of its employees “signed a non-disclosure clause in their contracts,” Minister Richardson said. He questioned the motives behind the recent actions. “They may think they’re doing good, but they only jeopardize our national security.” The airport did put some of its employees under legal scrutiny after the documents were made public.

The Minister said that “no department will be downsized.” But because the current security firm contracted at the airport has a 60% sick leave ratio, options are being considered to keep the airport safe, which he said should be the overriding priority. “Security is a number one issue for an airport. I’m sure no one can disagree with that.”

He further explained that it is SXM that owns all the concession rights at the airport. “It is an NV 100% owned by government,” and that “85% of the concessionaires are locally owned.”

NA MP William Marlin was the first of his faction to speak and question Minister Richardson. “The people own the airport. But of course 50,000 people cannot run the company,” MP Marlin said, which is why there is a shareholder representative. The NA leader said that there are “documents being leaked. It’s not good for the company, and not good for St. Maarten. We requested the shareholder representative to answer to Parliament.”

MP Marlin said that it’s not the board, not management, but the minister who is accountable to the people. He wanted to know if there were plans to downsize, and if so, how many employees, and in which departments and which services, because there are “consistent rumors of this.” The NA leader also had concerns over the bidding process at the airport and if only a privileged few were benefitting. “What procedures are in place to give or award contracts?”

Laveist’s main theme was “my people ain good enough?” Laveist wanted to know what has become of “airportgate,” as he called it. He said he had no problem with the board. “They are local.” He was concerned about the job security of workers at the airport, amidst rumors of downsizing or outsourcing, especially with the current security firm operating there.

He was also concerned about the concession process at the airport. “Does a particular politically connected family own the concession rights of the airport? We want to know who owns the concession rights at the airport.”

But independent MP Frans Richardson was having none of the NA faction’s questions. “It is sad,” he said “to see how this airport is dragged through the media, and we have to ask why?” The independent MP explained how the airport is a company that went on the international and open market to float bonds and had to go through a rigorous credit rating process from rating company Moody’s.

He also wanted to know what the comparative cost of the pelican statues were to other statues on the island, saying that he was certain that other statues commissioned in the past were more expensive but no one raised a fuss then.

“What is the policy of investigating documents being leaked to the public? If it has none, then why not and how soon?” MP Richardson asked. “How does the airport reduce mistrust and suspicion?” he further questioned. Because of the leaked documents, the independent MP explained, workers fear to “go the extra mile” above and beyond their specific job requirements for fear of their actions being leaked or reported on.

He also wanted to know if the airport was still doing appraisals on homes and properties on the southern side of the airport, near the Simpson Bay village. He wondered if the airport was going to purchase homes.

Independent MP Romain Laville said that the leaking of documents belonging to the airport was far more important an issue than anything else. “Sensitive information is being leaked out. It’s a national security issue. The overwhelming discussion should be how this information got leaked out?” the MP asked. He explained that the ramifications for the leak could be dangerous and detrimental to the airport and the island. How did these documents, which are the property of the government, get out?”

The MP said that “today it might be me, but tomorrow it could be you.” The bigger issue is the protecting the vital national interests of such an important institution, MP Laville said. “There is a hidden agenda,” he added. “Every single one of us had a chance to govern,” in reference to the changes in coalitions over the years and that MP William Marlin was the minister responsible for the airport during the NA’s time in government. “Same airport, what’s the difference now?”

United People’s party MP Jules James lashed out at his colleagues in the NA. “We all know it’s about political mileage,” he said. “It’s irresponsible, rude, and unprofessional,” he added about the person who leaked the documents to the media, referring to NA member Christopher Emmanuel.

MP Frans Richardson and the NA were not satisfied with the Minister’s answers. MP Frans Richardson said the Minister had not answered whether the homes were going to be bought or not, nor did the Minister answer the question on the relative cost of the statues. The NA felt the airport had quite a bit of discretion in the decision making process on bids and wanted more clarity.

The minister said he simply did not have enough time to gather such specific information but would provide it as soon as possible. The meeting was adjourned with notices to be given to MPs “shortly” when it would be reconvened, possibly by next week.

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