Opinion: A different path of wisdom

POSTED: 06/22/14 11:29 PM

Public functions are under siege. A small error of judgment is enough to kill a career. This is the trend in the Netherlands – one St. Maarten ought to embrace, but for the time being there is little chance that the job-generating machinery of the political establishment will follow the Dutch example. Patrick Illidge and Louie Laveist. Need we say more?

But let’s have a look at how things work in the Netherlands. Not that we have to copy everything they do over there (every country has its quirks) but just as an exercise to see if maybe we could pick up something that is valuable for the citizens of our country who are after all footing the bill for jobs in public office.

This is what happened during the past week. In one single day, two prominent public officials had to announce their departure. Theo Langejan, director of the Dutch Care Authority NZa, stepped down after a series of incidents that do not exactly amount to embezzlement but that were not entirely proper either. Langejan accepted pleasure trips paid for by the pharmaceutical industry. That’s not good, because Langejan is supposed to take, amongst other things, decisions about which medicine fall under healthcare insurance. The NZa supervises the market and monitors developments in the pharmaceutical industry.

Then there is Guido van Woerkom who became the new National Ombudsman in spite of serious controversy. But before he was sworn in, he stepped down. In May 2010, Van Woerkom – then director of the car lobby organization ANWB – said at a congress of fleet owners that he did not like the idea of his wife taking a taxi, “because there could be a Moroccan behind the wheel.” That statement came to haunt him when his candidacy for the Ombudsman office became public. To add insult to injury, the ANWB gave Van Woerkom €300,000 ($408,000) in severance pay, even though he left the organization voluntarily to become Ombudsman.

The publicity about these two incidents in the end became too much for Van Woerkom, and he withdrew from the Ombudsman job.

Xander van Uffelen, chief of the Economy Desk at the Volkskrant, notes that while Langejan and Van Woerkom are two different cases, there are also similarities. The public office is under a magnifying glass and a small mistake is quickly fatal. If only this were true in St. Maarten as well. In that case, citizens would be much better off.

National Alliance Member of Parliament Louie Laveist was found guilty in a criminal investigation. In 2012, four years after he was arrested on bribery charges, the court sentenced Laveist to a 6-month conditional prison sentence, a 5,000 guilders fine and a 3-year ban on holding public office.

Formally this sentence does not affect Laveist’s position as a member of parliament. He would only lose his seat with an unconditional prison sentence to his name. But readers will appreciate the difference with what is happening in the Netherlands. Langejan and Van Woerkom do not have a prison sentence to their name. They became the center of so much controversy that they decided – as Patrick Illidge would say – to choose the path of wisdom and step down.

Someone who obviously hates Moroccans, and who accepts a huge bonus from his former employer just because he is changing jobs, is not fit to be the National Ombudsman. It took Van Woerkom some time but in the end, he arrived at the right conclusion – something that is beyond Laveist.

Then there is independent MP Patrick Illidge. It is correct that he has not been sentenced yet for allegedly accepting $150,000 in bribes from Bada Bing owner Jaap van den Heuvel, but he is a suspect in this criminal investigation, and he will have to appear in court.

Illidge, and all politicians around him, pretend that there is nothing wrong with his decision to keep his seat in parliament, and to travel with a parliament delegation to the Netherlands where he (seriously!) wanted to attend a meeting about integrity. Fellow-parliamentarians simply have closed their eyes for the fact that Illidge has an integrity-issue. “He is still a member of parliament,” was all the leader of St. Maarten’s Ipko-delegation, MP Roy Marlin had to say about the matter.

Politicians are circling the wagons, so to speak. What does this say about their perception of integrity? It seems that this is a badly understood concept. If you side with the bad guys, are you then not cut from the same cloth?

In the Netherlands, not everybody is on the ethics bandwagon. After the Van Woerkom debacle, parliamentarians expressed fear that other candidates might be scared away by the risk of public scrutiny. The liberal VVD and the orthodox SGP “fear that only less suitable candidates will remain.”

That is an interesting observation, if you accept that those “less suitable candidates” might be people who have nothing to fear from public scrutiny. How does this make such candidates less suitable? Because they are honest people who refuse to play the games of the old boys network? We have written before that the ideal candidate for a seat in parliament is someone who puts all his or her cards on the table. We’re not talking about the blah-blah from political programs, we’re talking about the business interests and the side jobs candidates and their relatives have.

From a perspective of transparency, this would be a great step in the right direction. Right now, we only become aware of snippets of information – like the fact that Prime Minister Wescot-Williams’s son Andy has the New York Brasserie in Cupecoy, or that MP Roy Marlin owns a gas station in Dutch Quarter.

Is that good or bad? None of the two. The prime minister’s son is entitled to make his living like everybody else and MP Marlin is entitled to his gas station. Minister of Justice Dennis Richardson once said in an interview with Today that everybody is free to take part in economic activities, also the offspring of ministers and MPs. But these things have to be transparent, not shrouded in a cloak of secrecy.

Transparency is important for the political decision making process. We all remember the quandary UP-MP Jules James found himself in when he voted on a motion about his own behavior as the manager of the former Pelican Resort. Even James admits that this should not happen again. To make this process transparent candidates must be willing to throw their doors wide open and voluntarily offer information about their interests. It is no longer acceptable for politicians to say that their political activities and their business interests are two separate worlds. They are not, if only because there is a possibility that the two could meet. And when that happens, everything must be clear.

Van Uffelen writes in the Volkskrant that there is no possibility to get away from the strict requirements for holding public office. In St. Maarten there is, and that is unfortunate. It might be good for the political establishment, but it is bad for the citizenry.

“The use of a magnifying glass is an inevitable trend against which resistance is useless,” Van Uffelen writes, adding that under the influence of social media and the individualized society there is more noise than ever about the ethics of those in public office.

A public office holder must be able to hold his own in this debate, according to Van Uffelen and we wholeheartedly agree. St. Maarten’s problem is that there is no such debate.

When Laveist was under criminal investigation, politicians kept their heads down, hoping that the storm would pass. The same attitude surfaced in the Maria Buncamper-Molanus controversy in 2010, the stories about embezzlement at the Tourist Bureau and the criminal investigation with MP Patrick Illidge at the center.

It is an unhealthy and counterproductive attitude, but it is not possible to legislate people’s attitudes. This is a matter of mentality, responsibility and accountability. Fortunately, the electorate will have an opportunity to speak its mind on August 29. The downside of our democratic system is that politicians are called to account only once every four years.

We gladly make Xander Van Uffelen’s opinion ours: “A public office holder must be of irreproachable behavior.”

As long as we accept that people with a criminal record, like Laveist, or people under criminal investigation, like Illidge, stay in their seats, there is something seriously wrong – not only with the citizens that give them their vote, but certainly with the political establishment that circles the wagons.

For Patrick Illidge, who claimed to have chosen “the path of wisdom” when he was called on his integrity-status in the Netherlands, there is still an opportunity to have a change of heart and choose the correct path of wisdom. If Laveist followed the same direction, St. Maarten would already be a better place.

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