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Maria resigns as minister, NA rescinds no confidence motion

page1a186PHILIPSBURG--Health and Labour Minister Maria Buncamper-Molanus has resigned from her post in light of the latest scandal involving her and her husband, senior civil servant Claudius Buncamper, pertaining to a parcel of land on Pond Island that had been given in long lease. She said the scandal put the coalition in an "awkward position."

The minister said she was "hard worker" and enjoyed working for the people, but due to the awkward position in which the coalition and the Democratic Party (DP) leadership had been put, she made her position available as a minister.

She said that although she had given the people an explanation on the matter, it "doesn't take away the cloud placed over this government" and the dynamic team of the coalition and Council of Ministers still had so much work to get done.

This move was called déjà vu by National Alliance (NA) Parliamentarian William Marlin, because a similar position was taken by Buncamper-Molanus in 2008 when she was faced with another scandal while she was a commissioner.

The just-over-two-month-old United People's (UP) party/DP coalition now has the task of finding a new minister for the portfolio that Buncamper-Molanus held. The new minister has to be proposed by DP as per the coalition agreement. Potential candidates are said to be former DP commissioner and party President Michael Ferrier, and civil servant Cornelius de Weever, nephew of DP Parliamentarian Leroy de Weever.

Buncamper-Molanus was summoned to Parliament on Thursday at NA's request to answer questions about the land deal that involved the selling of the economic rights to the parcel for US $3 million. Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams also was called to Parliament on the matter.

Buncamper-Molanus made her position in the Council of Ministers "available" after answering questions posed by NA Parliamentarians William Marlin and Louie Laveist, and before the presentation of a no-confidence motion by Marlin on Thursday evening.

Marlin rescinded that motion later on behalf of the NA on the assurance that this was not to be a repeat of the episode in 2008. At that time the then-commissioner and her husband were involved in a conflict of interest scandal related to his appointment to the board of the St. Maarten Telephone Company TelEm and a subsequent donation from the company to her The Sky is the Limit Foundation.

Marlin said that based on Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams' statement that this was now country St Maarten and the matter would be deal with by the coalition, and with the hope that the minister would not be continuing her function as normal after the Christmas holidays, his party would take the motion off the table.

The minister's resignation and NA's rescinding of the motion took quite some pressure off the coalition. Coalition Parliamentarians would have had to vote on the motion and decide Buncamper-Molanus' fate.

Wescot-Williams thanked Buncamper-Molanus for taking some of the pressure off the coalition by resigning. She and the DP board had requested that the minister resign on at least three occasions in the past weeks, in light of the scandal. The minister had maintained that the sale of the economic rights was legal and she had done nothing morally or legally wrong.

Buncamper-Molanus told Parliament no money had "changed hands" for the land deal nor had she received US $ 3 million in the transaction. She also outlined the process through which she had obtained the land in long lease.

She said the entire matter had caused much debate that possibly would be the catalyst for change of the political landscape. She added that she didn't underestimate what the Prime Minister, who is also her party leader, and the coalition in general were going through because of this issue.

The minister maintained that the matter had been reported in a sensational way without her being given a fair chance to state her case or to be treated fairly. "I understand the power of the media in influencing the members of the public, [but] I deserve like anyone else to be treated fairly."

Marlin said in his presentation that the case was of government "insiders fixing up" themselves because of information they knew. While the minister had a legal opinion on the matter that said she had done nothing wrong, Marlin said this was an issue of morals and ethics and whether the behaviour of the minister was in keeping with integrity in government.

He said he didn't subscribe to the minister's stance that nothing was wrong with her benefiting from the land as she was a St. Maartener. He raised the point that the land had been filled in, with permission, by Elmer Moses Mardenborough in the 1990s, but government had not completed the long-lease process and the Buncampers had applied for and obtained this land for themselves because of this incomplete state.

Marlin said government must be transparent in its dealings.

Commenting on why the Prime Minister also had been summoned, Marlin said he had concerns about the screening of the ministers, as Parliament had not been informed about the procedure and there was concern about integrity in government.

He pointedly asked Wescot-Williams whether Buncamper-Molanus' action pertaining to the land deal was acceptable and whether she believed it was a good thing and in keeping with the philosophy of her government. He added that the impression had been created that persons must be involved in politics to obtain what they wanted to be successful.

Marlin said that if the manner in which the land deal had been carried out was acceptable, he feared that the land in the area of the Ring Road also would be chopped up and given out, but this time perhaps through more creative schemes.

Wescot-Williams told Parliament that the UP/DP government took integrity seriously and the screening of the ministers based on the existing laws had been "followed to the letter." She said that if government did not believe in integrity it would not have completed the process in general to put the integrity laws in place.

The Council of Ministers approved earlier this week the submission form pertaining to integrity in government that now has to be sent on to the court, followed by the creation of a registry by the Justice Minister, she said.

NA Parliamentarian Louie Laveist asked about reports of Buncamper-Molanus being connected to money laundering and about her party, DP, requesting that she resign because of the scandal.

Wescot-Williams said the minister in a "very decent way" had drawn her conclusion and tendered her resignation and had "clearly considered this based on her morals." She added that it was no secret that the issue of resignation had been discussed and that the minister's intention then was not to resign. She promised that the coalition would deal with the matter in a very decent way.

In a somewhat emotional way, the Prime Minister said St. Maarteners had always professed to be good and kind people, but it appeared that this did not apply within the halls of Parliament and politics. She added that when a St. Maartener felt good, she felt good, and when one was not so, there was no rejoicing. "If we are losing this feeling, then we are heading in the wrong way."

The prime minister had left Dr. A.C. Wathey Legislative Hall during Marlin's first address to Parliament, sparking a discussion about her absence. He asked for an adjournment until she returned to the proceeding, citing that the Rules of Order required ministers summoned to Parliament to be present throughout.

DP Parliamentarian Roy Marlin had questioned whether the ministers had been summoned in the proper way, a sentiment that was shared by Wescot-Williams when she returned to the hall. She said she was returning to her seat and would continue to follow the proceeding, but if called to speak she would decline.

That refusal would have been based on her and Buncamper-Molanus not receiving a written summons with plausible justification explaining why their presence was necessary. Only an oral request for the ministers to come to Parliament had been sent by the President of Parliament Gracita Arrindell via the interim clerk.

There was a suggestion to adjourn the meeting until the proper procedure could be followed, but all parties agreed to continue the proceedings.