Tearful Brook Tower project leader on trial: “Minister Duncan told me to help everybody”

POSTED: 05/28/12 2:36 PM

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – “You have to help everyone, but this should not be made public. If the press finds out about this it’s every man for himself. He gave me an instruction and I thought: you are the minister of justice, not I. If you want to open up the category 3 Brooks Tower it is up to you.” With these lines Ines Evelyn H., a career civil servant with an impeccable record who became the leader of the Brooks Tower project after St. Maarten became an autonomous country in October 2010, revealed how Justice Minister Roland Duncan set the tone for the mess the project would become.
When the Brooks Tower fraud unraveled and investigators started to make arrests in January 2011, Duncan washed his hands off his project leader. “He told me he did not want me back and that I should resign,” a nervous and at times emotional Evelyn H. told the Court in First Instance yesterday. After her arrest in January 21 of last year and her release on February 4, H. has not returned to work. Only three weeks ago did she get some job offers: one at the parliament and one at the rent committee. Deciding that she wants to stay out of the limelight, the 56-year-old accepted the second job option.
Yesterday, H. stood accused of forgery. The prosecution demanded a 6 month suspended prison sentence against her, with 3 years of probation. Judge mr. Monique Keppels will pronounce her verdict on June 13.
The defendant admitted the charges in court, saying that she had made a serious mistake when she decided to antedate application forms for extension of temporary Brooks Tower residence permits. Officially, the deadline to apply for such permit extensions ended on December 31, 2010. Because of the festive season, the justice ministry extended this deadline by an additional 7 days, starting after January 4, 2011.
In early January, the office of the justice ministry was the scene of humongous cues of people waiting to submit their applications. The pressure on the people who worked in the Brooks Tower project was so heavy, that Minister Duncan allowed Josianne Linette C. (who is also charged by the prosecution) to help out, over the defendant’s objections. C. worked without a contract, but apparently abused her position. Even Duncan’s driver S. got involved in the project.
That there was something wrong with the Brooks Tower project became apparent after the chef of the minister’s cabinet reported the theft of an official stamp on January 4, 2011. Soon afterwards rumors on the streets started, and articles began to appear in the media.
All this caught the attention of Paul Sewlall, an illegal who had just paid $2,300 to an obscure office in Cole Bay, operated by Josane E. (who will appear in court on June 27), to fix his residency papers. To achieve this goal, Sewlall was provided with a bogus employer’s affidavit from Kazan Construction.
When Sewlall went to the authorities to tell his story, the public prosecutor’s office started a criminal investigation. On January 21, officers raided the Brooks Tower office on Illidge road; there they ran into the sister of James Walcott Jones. She had just picked up papers for her brother from the office of Evelyn H. the date on his ticket to a temporary residence permit: December 30, 2010. This became the reason for Chief Prosecutor mr. Hans Mos to label Evelyn H., whom he knew from other capacities (as the secretary of the former Lt. Governor Franklyn Richards), “with pain in his heart” as a suspect.
“I had no bad intentions and I did not do this to enrich myself,” the defendant told the court. “It was wrong to do this, I know that now.”
That things went haywire with the Brooks Tower project has several causes beyond the defendant’s control. The first one is that the project’s transfer by the Netherlands Antilles to St. Maarten was messy. The second cause was that Justice Minister Duncan extended the deadline for applications without recording this in an official policy document. The third cause was obviously that Duncan instructed Evelyn H. in January 2011 “to help everybody.” –
One of the documented cases held against the defendant concerns a woman called Tamara Odetta Car. Erno Labega, the head of the government’s department of communications asked for help to get papers for her, saying that she worked as a cleaner at his Delta Hotel in Fort Willem. “There is only one cleaner working there and her name is not Car,” Judge Keppels said.
In the second week of January 2011, Evelyn H. was called into Minister Duncan’s office to arrange help for Car. When she told the Minister that the deadline had passed, the answer was: “I know that but that does not mean that you cannot accept an application every now and then.”
When the Brooks Tower deadline had passed in early 2011, Evelyn H. soon found out that the labor office walked a straight line and that it refused to process applications for work permits with a late-date.
She told the court that she conferred with her colleagues and then a solution was found: the letters clients received to take to the labor office would be antedate to December 2010. “I did not discuss this with the minister, and I regret that now,” Evelyn H, told the court. “The Secretary General (Ligia Stella – ed.) did not interfere with the Brooks Tower project; she would have been the second in command to discuss the decision with, but that did not happen either.
The prosecutor’s office was represented by Chief Prosecutor mr. Hans Mos and mr. Manon Ridderbeks. Other prosecutors followed the proceedings from the bleachers.
mr. Ridderbeks gave a brief overview of the Brooks Tower accord and the way it was intended to be executed. The purpose was to chart the number of illegals on the island and to give certain categories the opportunity to legalize their status. Illegals who arrived after December 31, 2005, were supposed to leave the island. Those who received a 1-year permit in the first round could obtain a 1- or 3-year extension depending on the category they fall in.
Evelyn H., who was looking for a new job after her function as secretary to the last Lt. Governor ceased to exist, was appointed as project leader, and she wrote the plan of approach that detailed how to handle the 300 pending applications and how to deal with the 200 who obtained a permit under Brooks Tower-1 and never showed up to apply for an extension.
Towards the end of 2010 there was a run on the Brooks Tower office by many illegals that were not entitled to a permit, because in theory the ministry would only issue extensions to permit holders. Justice Minister Duncan’s instruction to H. “to help everybody” caused havoc, and the project had the defendant’s head reeling.
“The defendant knew the scope of the Brooks Tower Accord. She knew that new applications were out of the question. Still, under her supervision new applications were accepted,” prosecutor Ridderbeks said.
Investigators confiscated more than 1,000 files from the Brooks Tower offices in January 2011. Detectives picked 30 random files from this pile and found something wrong with 29 of them.
Prosecutor Mos said that it is impossible to establish which ones of the applications have been issued before the deadline and which ones were issued afterwards. “We were depending on statements by the applicants, and most of them are untraceable,” he said.
Encountering the sister of James Walcott Jones during the raid on January 21, 2011, gave investigators the lucky break they needed.
“Instead of sticking to the rules, the defendant decided to adjust them. That was bad thinking,” Mos said. “But it should also be told under which circumstances she had to work. Mrs. C. came on board without a contract and she shamelessly abused her position. The minister’s driver also got involved. There was no control over the project’s execution. The defendant has acted naively by taking measures she should not have taken.”
The Public Prosecutor’s office asked for an administrative report about the situation. This was written by Dennis Richardson (to whom the defendant served as a secretary during his tenure as Lt. governor) and Joan Duvale-Meit. The conclusion of this report is, among others, that H. should have called in the secretary general’s help by asking for a clarification if the minister’s statement was that she had to help everybody.
Reflecting on the defendant’s spotless record in the civil service, Mos noted that it is incomprehensible how she could have made such a mistake. “The decision to appoint her to the position of project leader was not sensible and also irresponsible, because she had no previous management experience. It went over her head.”
The prosecutors noted that establishing the fact that what the defendant did amounts to a crime is in itself already a form of punishment. They demanded a 6-month suspended prison sentence and 3 years of probation.
H.’s attorney mr. Cor Merx noted that his client is the scapegoat in the Brooks Tower disaster. “A drama,” he said. “Why are the Minister and Erno Labega not on trial? The minister should have been here, because he is also responsible. This is force majeure, there was an emergency situation.”
mr. Merx asked the court to drop the prosecution against his client due to the lack of all guilt.

More details about this court case and the defense arguments in tomorrow’s newspaper.

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