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Only the People can save the people!

OPINION_BANNERDear Editor,

Region's Corruption - the idea for this paper was born in my heart, when I read an article by Prof. Trevor Munroe about donor agencies investing corruption in the region. Dr. Munroe is a former politician and is also Director of National Integrity Action in his country Jamaica.

At present there is a lot of talk taking place on the Island of St. Maarten (now Country St. Maarten) regarding transparency and integrity. I am not too sure how the population, in particular the grass-roots, will be involved in all of this. However, Prof. Munroe argues for transparency and integrity meetings with the people in their districts, villages and town-halls, so that their experience can be taken into consideration.

Donor Countries

As a member of the St. Maarten society I am reaching out to these Transparency and Integrity Investigators, and also screaming for help! The aspect of Prof. Munroe's presentation, which I would like to have addressed is that of having Donor Countries and Agencies dig deeper to ensure that their taxpayers' cash is not ending up in the pockets of the corrupt. Prof. Munroe, in his article, requests the donor nations to be more inquisitive about how their funds are used, even at the risk of being accused of meddling and interfering in domestic affairs. He stresses that their aid, their grant is intended for the people and not for the pockets of the corrupt.

Hurricanes – specifically "Luis"

St. Maarten's specific situation that I would like investigated is the following. After the most devastating Hurricane Luis of 1995, the Ministry of Interior Affairs of the Netherlands made funds available to help rebuild the island. The loan was given at 2.5 per cent. The entity that was found agreeable to administer the funds was the Development Bank of the Netherlands Antilles OBNA. OBNA set up a foundation called "Bijzondere Fondsen," this benevolent foundation, as they called themselves, added 4.5 per cent for their services. So in essence, these administrators were making almost 200 per cent profit on money that was not theirs.

Let me also point out that the office responsible for administrating these funds on St. Maarten was and still is manned by one person. Moreover, let me point out that not one of the foundation's members is from St. Maarten, also not one of them live on St. Maarten, and hence is not familiar with the customs and practices on St. Maarten. None of them have ever experienced a hurricane. Besides that St. Maarten has not had a representative on the OBNA board for the last 15 years.

Consequently, because of all of this, there was and is no affinity, empathy or sympathy for their clients on St. Maarten, the benefactors of the funds. For example, St. Maarten was not hit by one hurricane after Luis, there were at least four other hurricanes. The Bankers Association on the island granted suspension to their clients for payments on the principle, until they were back on their feet. The development bank (OBNA) did not!

OBNA Policy

Due to their policy, at a time of little or no turnover in the already fragile tourist-based economy to keep the meter running, has had devastating effect especially taking into consideration that OBNA applied the worst compounded and add-on interest principle ever seen.

Foreclosures

The late "PJ" and myself as benefactors of these funds complained to OBNA and to the Dutch representative (Donor Country) who at that time was Mr. Vincent Stolman. Mr. Stolman pointed out that the financial aid that the Ministry of Interior Affairs had given was exactly that aid. It was not the intention of the Dutch to have the people of St. Maarten lose their property because of the inability to pay back this loan. Ironically, the first person who was threatened with foreclosure on their home was Mr. "PJ" shortly after the bank's decision to foreclose, he passed. The complete details of what happened after that is still a mystery.

Holland as St. Maarten's Donor Country

If the Donor Country, in St. Maarten's case, Holland had enquired, as Prof. Munroe is suggesting, about how their funds were used they would have found out:

- That which was supposed to have been a relief, had now become a burden, because of the almost 200 per cent profit margin; and because they did not stop the principle "meter" from running, as applied by the St. Maarten Bankers Association, as well as the acrimonious compounded add-on interest.

- That after 17 years some of the victims were still facing foreclosure on their properties.

- That there was a lack of consistency in applying the foreclosure measure.

Guarantors

For example: a Member of Parliament who will be referred to as Mr. G stood as a guarantor for a bus loan. In Mr. G's case because of "force majeure" the bus caught fire and was a total-loss. The insurance paid out and the OBNA representative bought a second-hand bus with the pay-out money, as partial payment for the bus owner. Mr. G was not required as a guarantor in the second case; however, when the bus owner defaulted, the bank tried to hold Mr. G accountable for the payment and sent the account to a collection agency. Mr. G made the bank aware that he didn't stand as guarantor in this case and the bank had to drop the case.

The late, well-known and beloved politician who has since passed and who shall be referred to as Mr. M also stood as a guarantor for a bus from the same OBNA funds. After his death, up until as recent as October 2, 2013, the bank was trying to foreclose on their home, which was put up as security for this loan. Luckily for them on October 2, 2013, they received a letter from said institution absolving them from all payments.

Contrast these two cases, now with the following two: a well-known lawyer also stood as guarantor for a bus driver and so did a well-known female politician and former Member of Parliament; however, how come the OBNA never went as aggressive and vicious after them when their benefactor defaulted as in the first two cases? As they say in Dutch: "Gelijke monniken, gelijke kappen," which would mean, law for one – law for all. Then again, there are some benefactors who refused to come forward, because as they put it, OBNA doesn't harass (collect) them anymore.

Personal Case

In short here is my personal case – My parents desirous of getting into the hospitality business incorporated the limited liability company "Richardson Realty Alliance Ltd." dba Sunset Inn Hotel for their children.

We too had a 10-year loan from said funds in 1997. I, Basil Richardson (author of this letter and heir to Richardson Reality Alliance Ltd) took over the day-to-day operation of the family business at the end of October 2008.

The first thing I noticed was that the outstanding balance, which was supposed to be zero or close to zero, was now more than the amount that we initially borrowed. I humbly requested the bank to give a complete breakdown of how the payments were administered, which portion went to principle and which portion went to interest. Up to this day they have refused. In February 2009, they sent us a demand letter, and since then they have been out to foreclose.

I contacted then leader of government Mr. G, who then shared his experience as described above with me. As solution, he was going to ask Holland to make these outstanding funds part of the debt relief that they had promised the new Country St. Maarten before 10-10-10. Great was my disappointment to learn afterwards from him that he didn't succeed because he claimed that the Dutch made him feel like a beggar and hence he discontinued the negotiations.

Transparency & Integrity

The last episode in this sad saga is that after their actions, OBNA has caused a huge outstanding debt. There is talk of them selling this portfolio to third parties. Would the Donor Country - The Netherlands - be informed about this, especially taking into consideration that St. Maarten now has a new country status. While I will not go as far as Prof. Munroe and call anyone corrupt, let me point out, recommend and request that:

- The management agreement between the Dutch and OBNA should be revisited;

- The articles of the foundation were amended in 2006 – why? (see exhibit I)

- Was the Donor country informed about this? If not Why not? and

- A thorough investigation be carried out on the "Stichting Bijzondere Fondsen"

Finally, how you as investigators are going to work is not known, Prof. Munroe proposed the method of getting the grassroots (people) involve. However, I am attempting to reach out to you. Why? In our young representative democracy our representatives in Parliament have not always represented us, some may even say that at times they have misrepresented us. In my case, in spite of the fact that they have had several meetings with OBNA and in spite the fact that at least two members had direct contact with this bank as guarantors for these same very funds, and in spite of me writing them several letters about this situation, not once did they discussed the topic of these funds.

Only the People can save the people!

Basil Richardson

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