Tourist Bureau trial turns into indictment against Regina Labega

POSTED: 03/6/15 1:27 PM

St. Maarten – The trial of former marketing director of the Tourist Bureau Edward Dest turned into an indictment against the bureau’s former managing director Regina Labega and against the former Executive Council of the Island Territory of St. Maarten. While the prosecutor’s office demanded a 2-month suspended sentence against Dest, defense attorney Janna Westra wondered why only her client was standing trial, while there are others involved – like Regina Labega and Lisa Koffi.

Regina Labega, who was appointed managing director of Princess Juliana International Airport after the allegations about embezzlement of funds at the Tourist Bureau became public in 2010, appears to be the one who gave Dest instructions to make certain payments on behalf of the organization from an account at the Chase Bank in New York. That account was established to finance the New York-based branch of the Tourist Bureau and its funds were earmarked for the promotion of St. Maarten in the North American source market.

However, the Tourist Bureau, mostly at the instructions of Regina Labega, made payments for a variety of activities from the Chase-account that had nothing to do with promoting tourism in the North American market.

Dest acknowledged in court without hesitation that the signatures on certain checks the prosecution presented in the case were his.

At the end of the trial, Dest said that it had always been unclear to him why he was suspended in December 2010. “This criminal case has been hanging over my head ever since,” he said. “I am accused of violating procedures with the Chase-account that have been followed for nine years. I did not enrich myself and I was accountable to the head of the department (managing director Regina Labega – ed.). Where are the other suspects? It seemed easier to throw somebody under the bus. I am innocent of criminal actions. I acted on order of the director.”

The former head of the finance department Bas Roorda filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office about embezzlement of funds at the tourist Bureau on October 25, 2010. For a long time, nothing seemed to happen with the investigation, until Dest stepped forward last year asking the court to bring the investigation against him to a conclusion. The other suspects, Labega and Lisa Koffi, did not file such a request.

According to prosecutor Nanouk Lemmers this is the main reason why only Dest was standing trial yesterday. “The possibility of the prosecution of Labega and Koffi is very real,” she told the court, indicating that there is more to the case that what Dest has been charged with. Lemmers dismissed the defense’s argument that she had violated the principle of equality and that her office had randomly chosen to prosecute Dest.

The Chase-account in New York was between June 1, 2009 and August 23, 2010, fed with $.67,000 per month. The bureau in New York was an entity established based on American law, attorney Westra said. “With the payment to the Chase-account, the supervision of the government over the way this money was spent, stopped.” She said that the budget for the New York-office had been approved by the Executive Council for the years 2008/2009 and 2009/2010. “As long as the budget posts were not exceeded, the New York office did not violate the budget,” she said.

The charges against Dest rest on eight different investigations varying from the double payment of per diems to director Labega and several business trips to the payment for a Christmas dinner at the Fusion restaurant. All these expenses were paid out of the Chase-account.

Standard procedure for business trips was asking permission from the Executive Council. On one occasion, a trip was paid from the Chase-account because, according to Dest, the Executive Council did not react to a request for permission.

Tickets for urgent business trips that resulted from last-minute decisions were also paid via Chase, because the bureaucratic procedures in St. Maarten took too long.

The infamous Christmas dinner the Tourist Bureau hosted on December 24, 2009 at the Fusion restaurant was also paid via the Chase-account. Managing director Regina Labega told investigators that she had not asked permission from the Executive Council “because she would not get permission anyway.”

Prosecutor Lemmers addressed the reason why it had taken so long to take the case to court extensively. She said that the National Detective Agency had been overwhelmed with 23 reported cases and that other investigations were given a higher priority.

Dest asked in January of last year to bring his case to its conclusion, whereupon the Common Court of Justice gave the prosecution three months to complete the investigation.

The read thread through all the accusations, Lemmers said, is that money from the Chase-account was used inappropriately. She considered the charge of embezzlement by a civil servant proven, though she asked the court to acquit Dest of the charge of money laundering.

A key statement in the investigation that pleads in favor of Dest came from former Lt. Governor Franklyn Richards. He told investigators that the whole Executive Council was aware that the Tourist Bureau was making business trips without permission and that the government accountant bureau Soab had investigated this.

“If that is true, this becomes a completely different story,” Judge Maria Paulides observed.

The court will pronounce its ruling on March 25.

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