PWC-integrity report: Ministers meddle in day to day operations of their departments

POSTED: 10/1/14 5:23 PM

St. Maarten – Senior public officials throughout the government have failed consistently to set the tone that exemplifies the highest standards of personal and professional integrity. This is among the findings PricewaterhouseCoopers researchers have included in their integrity inquiry into the functioning of the Government of St. Maarten.

The report contains a stunning collection of examples that show how ministers and high-ranking civil servants alike use their clout to frustrate the functioning of departments. Many civil servants told the researchers that it is quite likely for family members or friends to call ministers with their complaints or requests. One, unidentified, minister, confirmed this: “I scare myself every day when I realize the power I have – it’s not normal and it’s not good.”

Ministers ignore advices written by their departments on a regular basis, for extended periods of time and in a seemingly subjective manner, the report states. This negatively affects the quality of work the ministries perform. One employee at the ministry of justice told the researchers: “I make decisions but I’m really a puppet in between. I’m not able to do what I want to do, they willfully keep us lame – we are just there but we have no power.”

A controller at another ministry simply said, “controllers have no say.”

Another practice: ministers instructing their department not to write negative advices. Three officials said that their minister issued this rule to his entire ministry. Asked why civil servants would not write a negative advice, one answer was, “We can’t really get fired, but they can make your life miserable. It’s not a written policy but I have to comply. I’m just sick of getting threatened.”

The chapter about potential abuse of power is particularly enlightening because, even though the PWC-report mentions no names, some situations are easily recognizable. Ministers and secretaries-general often interfere with inspections, members of many inspection teams told the investigators.

“Ministers get involved in day to day operations and you can’t perform what you want to do,” one statement reads. “All big fish get away and do what they want. This is a big obstacle in the department, the guys are very upset about it but at the end of the day the minister is the boss.”

One example is the opening of an unidentified nightclub. From the characteristics, this newspaper derives that the incident has to do with Le Shore in Simpson Bay that opened in December 2012. The team that conducted a labor, fire, food and safety control concluded that the place had to be closed down because proper fire extinguishers were not in place and there were no emergency exits, while Le Shore expected 800 people at opening night. The inspectors also found employees that had no work permits.

The inspector that spoke about the incident to the PWC-researchers said that the business owner told him, “We paid the minister so much, you can’t close us down.” The club was not closed, but quick fixes had to be made so that the opening could proceed.

Since this incident relates to amongst others food safety and labor issues, the ministry involved has to be that of public health, social affairs and labor. The minister in office at the time was Cornelius de Weever.

Then there is the case of an inspection at a restaurant in February 2013. The report describes the place as “owned by a close relative of a minister.” In February 2013, the Brasserie New York in Porto Cupecoy was inspected. The owner is Andy Wescot, son of Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams.

The report from the inspector states that four of the eight people working at the restaurant did not have valid work permits. The restaurant owner was furthermore unable to produce his business registration, work roster and personnel list.

“According to a firsthand account, the minister (presumably Wescot-Williams) made a call the next day to an official stating, “why are you harassing my [close relative]?” and indicated that the inspection ought to be terminated.

A member of the inspection team of the Ministry of Public Health, Social Affairs and Labor told the researchers that after this phone call “the business received its operational license and was able to obtain work permits for four French nationals very quickly.”

The law sanctions employing people without a permit with a 100,000 guilders fine or three months of imprisonment. The business and its owner were never sanctioned, the report notes.

Another incident refers to soliciting donations for political parties. One business owner received a phone call from the personal assistant of a minister while the researchers were interviewing him. The business owner told the assistant, ‘the check is ready.” Then he told the researchers that he did not support the party that asked for the donation, but he paid them all the same. “The fear is that the next time you need a permit or cooperation you won’t get it, something in the future will be withheld.”

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