The challenges of St. Maarten’s Chief Prosecutor Rick Noordhoek: “No capacity left to deal with criminal organizations”

POSTED: 04/10/14 1:03 AM

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – “There is an awful lot to do here, though things work differently than they do in the Netherlands. There are a lot of hardworking people of good will in St. Maarten, but there is also something going on.” These are the first impressions of Chief Prosecutor Rick Noordhoek, the successor of Hans Mos and interim-pope Hans Wesselink. He started his 3-year contract on February 1, and sat down yesterday morning for an interview with Today.

Too much work and not enough manpower and expertise – not to mention the lack of prison cells – to do everything to everybody’s satisfaction. That neatly sums up the situation for the prosecutor’s office, the police force, the National Detective Agency, the Detective Collaboration Team RST and the prison system. Dutch politicians accuse St. Maarten of not doing enough – if anything – to address integrity issues and corruption but in the meantime the Netherlands does nothing to help.

Noordhoek begins with the current situation: “Two police officers were suspended, two customs officers are suspected of involvement with drugs smuggling and a civil servant is also at the verge of being suspended. Comparatively, that is a lot. What I also noticed is the lack of detention capacity. Due to that situation, people have to be unjustly released, or they are not even detained.”

A recent example is that of two suspects in a money laundering investigation. They arrived with a private plane and were caught holding a suitcase filled with $400,000. The money and the plane are going nowhere – they have been confiscated – but the two defendants were released because they did not get their required day program in detention. “They have disappeared from the island,” Noordhoek says. “I understand that they have been picked up by a private plane.”

Asked how it is possible that these suspects left the island this way, Noordhoek shrugs his shoulders. “Controls at the airport exceed expectations – in a negative way,” he says. “It even turns out that, when they arrived, an employee of the airport took the money out of the airport.”

The lack of a day program as get-out-of jail-card does not sit well with Noordhoek. “This frustrates the work of the prosecutor’s office, the police and the court. There are enough inmates who do not even want to take part in those day programs.”

A source of serious concern is the staffing of the National Detective Agency (Landsrecherche). Noordhoek: “They are working on several large investigations that are taking a lot of time. That is an explanation, not a justification. After 10-10-10, the National Detective Agency was not immediately a well-oiled machine. It has been built up slowly.”

Currently the agency has its hands full with a large corruption investigation, but it also has to deal with current incidents, like the suspended police officers and the wayward customs officers. “All this with six or seven people,” Noordhoek says. “And they are not all well versed in building dossiers.”

He puts the agency’s challenges in perspective by comparing them with the Jos van Rey corruption-investigation in the Netherlands. Van Rey, a member of the liberal VVD, was kicked out of the party because of the criminal investigation, and he established his own party. During the recent municipal elections, his Liberal People’s Party won 10 seats in Roermond and Van Rey was elected with preferential votes. “That investigation lasted two years and it was done by a team of 40 to 60 detectives,” Noordhoek illustrates the difference with St. Maarten.

Justice Minister Dennis Richardson has asked the Netherlands for additional resources for the National Detective Agency and for the prosecutor’s office. “The minister has asked for four additional people at the National Detective Agency of which two have been promised. His request for two secretaries for the prosecutor’s office has also met with a positive reaction.”

Secretaries at the prosecutor’s office are jurists who support the work of public prosecutors. Noordhoek emphasizes that such staff members are valuable assets. “I have seen some of them in the Netherlands who were actually better than the prosecutors they worked for. The main task of the secretary we want is to direct the investigations of the National Detective agency. There is somebody in the Netherlands who is eager to fill that post.”

Noordhoek considers the National Detective Agency, led by Ademar Doran, as seriously understaffed with just seven detectives. How much capacity does this agency really need? “You could easily triple or quadruple the current number,” he says. Considering the number and the depth of the ongoing investigations and the people we have at our disposal, we are now forced to limit certain investigations.”

For at least one of these lengthy investigations there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The fraud-investigation at the Tourist Bureau that came to light in 2010 has been partially completed. “Shortly a summons to appear in court will go out to one of the suspects,” Noordhoek says, without giving specifics because the suspect in question has not been informed yet.

In November 2010, Minister of Tourism and Economic Affairs Franklin Meyers suspended Tourist Bureau director Regina Labega and her press officer Edward Dest to facilitate “an ongoing investigation into discrepancies found by the finance department.” A month later, they were back at work, and the investigation seemed to be going nowhere.

Later the (now former) head of the finance department Bas Roorda revealed that the investigation focused on fraud with daily allowances for business trips abroad. The commissioner of tourism at the time, and current independent Member of Parliament Frans Richardson, was also mentioned as one of the suspects.

Labega was later promoted to managing director of Princess Juliana International Airport. Dest is now the interim director of the Tourist Bureau.

Noordhoek said that the investigation still has to be completed and that the suspected will not be summoned to court together.

Another potential investigation into possible money laundering by former Public Health Minister Maria Buncamper-Molanus seems to be dead in the water. Noordhoek, himself an expert in money laundering investigations, cites the lack of financial expertise at all levels of law enforcement as the reason why this investigation is not underway – at least, not yet. “I am not prepared yet to say that we’ll close the book on it,” the chief prosecutor says.

Lack of financial expertise is the main reason why it is not possible to do certain investigations, but there are problems elsewhere as well. “The Financial Intelligence Unit (the reporting center for unusual financial transactions – ed.) does not have people who supervise. I am almost certain that the FIU hardly receives reports from the jewelers sector on Front Street. That is remarkable. The FIU does send some reports to the prosecutor’s office, but what happens with those? By far not enough.”

Noordhoek regrets that there is no automatic link match between FIU-reports and the register of wanted persons. In his opinion, that would bring more to light.

That the community is impatient about the lack of progress with integrity-investigations is understandable, Noordhoek says, but everything comes back to the same bottleneck. “There is always a financial component to integrity investigations,” he says. “We have agreed with the attorney-general to substantiate our request for more assistance further. We will also take a good look at the covenant with the Dutch National Detective Agency. There is a lot of criticism from the Netherlands, but if they stay on the sidelines and do not offer a helping hand, they will not see any improvements either.”

In the steering group with the police force, Noordhoek has discussed the phenomenon of criminal organizations. “We have our eyes on a number of them and we are assessing which ones are the most disruptive for the community. You have to think about aspects like violence, drugs and human trafficking. Then we look at gangs that manifest themselves in several of these fields and at those that facilitate other gangs. We have discussed this extensively, until we arrived at the question: how many of them are we able to tackle? There we were quickly finished. All our capacity is in use for ongoing investigations and for incidents like armed robberies. We have zero capacity left. We have enough insight in criminal organizations, but no capacity to deal with it.”

One more detail that has attracted Noordhoek’s attention is this: “What amazes me is that, when a policeman oversteps the mark, the Chief Commissioner is unable to suspend that officer himself. That authority has been delegated upwards to the Minister of Justice.”

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