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Labega, Dest back at work at Tourist Office today

page1a169~ Minister withdraws suspension ~

PHILIPSBURG--Minister of Tourism Franklin Meyers has withdrawn the suspension of St. Maarten Tourist Office Director Regina Labega and Head of Marketing Edward Dest, reportedly on the basis of insufficient grounds/lack of evidence.
The Minister, through government's legal representative, informed Labega's and Dest's attorney Jairo Bloem of his decision on Thursday. Meyers also mandated that Labega and Dest could report to work immediately. Both said they would be back at the Tourist Office on Friday morning.
Meyers' decision to withdraw the suspension came just hours before Labega and Dest were scheduled to start their court case against government in an effort to have the suspension decision reversed. Both were suspended on November 3 on the basis of what Meyers dubbed "discrepancies." Government has not yet responded to Bloem's request to supply the grounds on which it decided to suspend his clients.
According to Bloem, the government's lawyer also indicated via a letter that the Prosecutor's Office had confirmed that a related criminal complaint had been filed on November 25, almost three weeks after the suspensions, and that it was in the process of possibly starting a criminal investigation. In other words, no criminal investigation has been initiated yet, only a civil procedure.
Bloem explained that Labega and Dest were not suspects in that case at this point in time. The Daily Herald understands that this criminal complaint reportedly was filed by Head of the Finance Department Bas Roorda after financial discrepancies were found with funds allotted to the Tourist Bureau.
Bloem explained that he believed government's strategy had been to have the letter from the Prosecutor's Office admitted to the court case on Thursday afternoon. However, the suspension case and a possible criminal case are two different matters altogether.
Moreover, Labega and Dest were not suspended because of a possible criminal investigation and, to date, have never been given an explanation about why they were suspended. Also, the criminal complaint was filed weeks after their suspensions.
"That letter was produced to the Justice in the hope that it would be part of the hearing today," Bloem said. "We responded to the Prosecutor's Office in writing and asked them to allow us to see documents and have access to the file. We asked them to clarify when the complaint was filed and if the Prosecutor's Office considered our clients suspects.
"The vagueness of the letter could cause uncertainty that might have a possible negative effect on the civil case of our clients. So it was prudent that clarity be given on those two questions."
After Bloem wrote the Prosecutor's Office, the attorney for government sent another letter with the Minister's decision to withdraw the suspensions. According to Bloem, the Minister indicated that that government's ongoing investigation would continue and he (Meyers) reserved the right to impose disciplinary measures should they become necessary.
Bloem also explained that that the Prosecutor's Office had sent a letter stating that access to the criminal case procedures would not be allowed, "because at this point in time there is no criminal investigation." If or when a criminal case is initiated, Bloem will be duly informed.
"The attorney of government asked if my clients would be willing to withdraw their court procedure. My clients indicated that they wanted a certain standard sum to be reimbursed, which the courts would normally allow if they would win the case. The Minister expressed his willingness to compensate them. So we have withdrawn the injunction procedure," Bloem said.
"I'm personally somewhat amazed that you first suspend someone, then wait almost three weeks to file a criminal complaint, then almost a week after you have done so, you undo the suspension. But better late than never. Still, my clients are completely in the dark about the facts and reasons that caused this episode in their lives. My clients will still be requesting government to outline the facts that caused it to take the disputed decision to suspend.
"My clients have an interest in knowing. That interest stems from the very fact that now that they will resume work, they involuntarily might do something that they are not doing correctly, because up to now they don't know the facts and circumstances."
Government probably will be given until Wednesday, December 8, to produce its grounds for suspension.
Bloem added that he and his clients had received no information about government appointing an interim head at the Tourist Office and he fully expected his clients to resume work unobstructed.
Despite the prospect of a possible criminal case, Labega and Dest both said they were happy to be going back to work today to continue working for St. Maarten.
"Like I've been doing for the last 19 years, I will go to work and meet with the staff and resume as normal," a clearly emotional Labega said, adding that the international marketing representatives also would be contacted to let them know that she was back at work.
She said the support shown in the stressful weeks since the suspension had been overwhelming. "I want to thank all those who have been calling and giving their support and all the friends who have been praying for us. We are very grateful and thankful to them. We are eager to get back to work," she said.
Minister Meyers could not be reached for additional comment.

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