~ Lawyers plead for acquittal ~
PHILIPSBURG--Two years and six months after the Court of First Instance convicted Bada Bing owner Jaap van den Heuvel (52) to 42 months, twelve of which were suspended, with two years’ probation, for bribery of former independent Member of Parliament (MP) Patrick Illidge (51), money-laundering, tax evasion, trafficking of women and forgery of a commercial lease agreement, the Solicitor-General on Thursday called on the Court of Appeals to fully uphold the verdicts against both men, as well as against Bada Bing’s holding company Lunteren N.V. and Bada Bing manager Krijn van der Brug (44).
The Court of First Instance sentenced Illidge to 18 months in prison, six of which were suspended, with two years’ probation, for bribery. The Judge also revoked Illidge’s right to be elected and banned him from holding public office for five years.
The third suspect in the so-called Orca investigation, Van der Brug, was sentenced to nine months suspended, with two years’ probation and 240 hours of community service for involvement in the trafficking of women.
Lunteren N.V. was ordered to pay NAf. 1.5 million in fines for tax evasion, money-laundering and trafficking of women.
In March 2015, the Prosecutor’s Office had requested 48 months and payment of a NAf. 1 million fine for the nightclub owner, and nine months suspended and 180 hours of community service for its manager. Initial charges of membership in a criminal organisation were dropped.
The case came to light after a videotape emerged in which Illidge is seen accepting stacks of banknotes from Van den Heuvel as the two are discussing business licences. The images were recorded in Van den Heuvel’s office on September 30, 2012. The Daily Herald in St. Maarten and the Telegraaf newspaper in the Netherlands obtained copies of the tape. Based on the videotape and on statements provided by Illidge, the Court of First Instance found bribery proven.
Also on Thursday, all suspects vehemently denied any wrongdoing. “This case has been made up by the Prosecutor’s Office,” Van den Heuvel told the Court when asked for his reasons to file for appeal. “This is absolutely not right. I totally disagree with the verdict. The investigations by the Prosecutor’s Office are ridiculous. That video is not about a licence. I already had a licence for a long time. Patrick and I always talked about politics, but this was not about what the Prosecutor’s Office is accusing us of.”
Van der Brug also said he was in full disagreement with his conviction on women-trafficking charges.
Former MP Illidge, who is currently unemployed, said he had filed for appeal because he believes he was treated unjustly. “Lots of people played and much damage was caused,” he said. Illidge said he is out of a job because of this case, “but there is light at the end of the tunnel, as there is hope for a fair judgment in appeal with less sensation.”
The Court of First Instance found it proven that Illidge had accepted a NAf. 50,000 bribe in exchange for which he was to use his power and influence in favour of the Bada Bing owner and his company, between March 2011 and October 2012.
For instance, Illidge was to arrange several adapted licences for the nightclub with the Ministry of Economic Affairs, which were to include an operational licence for the nightclub and a change in its official registered address from Maho Shopping Centre to Sr. P. Houtman Road in Simpson Bay. Illidge was also to promote extended opening hours for the establishment and seek the extension of work permits for several female employees.
According to Illidge’s lawyer Ralph Richardson, the Prosecutor’s Office had been “juggling around” with different types of licences, but in fact it only concerned Illidge’s assistance in changing Bada Bing’s address.
Illidge claimed he had not accepted any bribe. He maintained that the payments seen on the video concerned repayment of a loan to his long-time friend Van den Heuvel.
The Bada Bing owner said the video might seem to concern a bribery attempt, but in fact Illidge got his own money back. “It was to look like bribery. It was a set-up by a high-ranking politician whose name I will not mention, as there are reporters in the courtroom,” Van den Heuvel said.
Richardson claimed that Illidge had been the victim of “trial by media” and that the Parliament of St. Maarten, the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament and the Dutch Prime Minister had also played influential roles in this case to such an extent that the right to a fair trial had been breached.
Bada Bing management denied all charges, including the trafficking of women. “It is a big disgrace that the Prosecutor’s Office is accusing us of trafficking women. We are treating these women very well. Some return to the club three to four times,” Van den Heuvel said, adding that Bada Bing had been named best adult entertainment club for five or six years in a row.
“The Government is promoting prostitution in St. Maarten, not the club,” added Bada Bing’s attorney Cor Merx.
Van der Brug’s lawyer Geert Hatzmann took a similar position, saying it was “hypocrisy” that had driven St. Maarten to start pointing fingers “out of the blue” in stating that the employment of foreign women at a brothel in St. Maarten is equal to prostitution.
Hatzmann said the Prosecutor’s case against his client should be declared inadmissible. Based on the Court’s ruling of April 4 in the case against Casa Blanca brothel, he said it could not be established that Van de Brug had personally recruited, transported or housed women to work as prostitutes; that was his employer’s responsibility, the lawyer claimed.
Besides this, the women were not forced to work as prostitutes, they were not exploited and were not prevented from leaving Bada Bing.
Thursday’s sitting ended with attorney Eric Jansen pleading to declare the Prosecutor’s fiscal cases against Lunteren and its director Van den Heuvel inadmissible, or to fully acquit them of all fiscal charges. These include the failure to file profit tax between 2008 and 2011, and turnover tax from January 1, 2008, until January 15, 2013.
The appeal hearing continues at 9:00am today, Friday, with attorney Merx pleading on the criminal charges against Van den Heuvel and Lunteren, followed by the Solicitor-General’s response to the lawyers’ pleadings. Then the lawyers get a second round of pleadings, after which the defendants will have the right to their last words.
The Appeals Court is expected to give its decision in three weeks’ time.