The “LEA building” in Philipsburg.
PHILIPSBURG--Considering it proven that Frans Richardson (55) accepted bribes totalling US $94,800 and abused his position as a Member of Parliament (MP), the solicitor-general on Thursday asked the panel of three appellate judges to sentence the former leader of United St. Maarten Party (US Party) to seventeen months in prison and order him to pay almost NAf. 193,000 in criminal proceeds.
The solicitor-general also requested that the court take away Richardson’s right to be elected to public office for 41 months.
Thursday was the first day of Richardson’s appeal trial in the Joint Court of Justice in the so-called “Aquamarine II” case.
In this case, the Court of First Instance in November 2021 found Richardson guilty of having requested substantial sums of money from construction company Taliesin for repairs of damage caused by Hurricane Irma to the “LEA building” in which government agency Bureau Telecommunication and Post (BTP) is located.
The lower court ruled that Richardson had used his influence as a politician to ensure that Taliesin would be awarded contracts for maintenance and repair work for BTP and to expedite payment of existing contracts with BTP.
For several years, Richardson also received dividends from another company that held a contract with BTP. The lower court found that this was abuse of position, as Richardson was simultaneously a member of the parliamentary Committee of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication (TEATT) and the Committee of Finance, which had a supervisory role over BTP.
In its verdict, the Court of First Instance handed Richardson a 12-month prison sentence and ordered payment of NAf. 192,690 in ill-gotten wealth.
As in the lower court trial last year, on Thursday Richardson denied any involvement in bribery and abuse of position.
Richardson gave testimony at the beginning of the day, which was followed by the solicitor-general’s request for punishment. The appeal trial continues today, Friday, with the defence’s pleadings.
Bribes or political donations?
A large portion of the court’s morning session centred around six cheques from Taliesin, which the prosecution argued were bribes paid to Richardson, sometimes cashed through intermediaries.
The first two cheques were from December 2013 and March 2014, respectively. Both were made out in Richardson’s name, each with an amount of $10,000.
Authorities found the notation “Don” written on the cheques’ slips in Taliesin’s chequebook. The solicitor-general takes the notation to be shorthand for “donation”.
Taliesin owner C.C. (64) told police that Richardson had approached him sometime before and asked to be paid because he “did something” for the LEA building. C. bought the building in December 2011 for $700,000. He refurbished it and sold it back to BTP in February 2013 for $6.6 million.
Richardson told the court on Thursday that C. had lied about the transactions and that the payments were actually political donations.
The solicitor-general asked Richardson why the March 2014 cheque had not been registered with the Electoral Council, as required by the National Ordinance on Registration and Finances of Political Parties. Richardson said he could not remember.
The next two cheques were from November 2017, just two months after Hurricane Irma devastated the island.
C. told authorities that Richardson had similarly approached him after the hurricane with a story that he “done work on the building” and wanted a portion of the proceeds. Around this time, BTP had contracted Taliesin to repair the storm’s damage to the LEA building.
C. said he had written at least two blank cheques in mid-November 2017 for $20,000 each and handed them to Richardson. On the cheques’ slips, authorities found the notation “Comm. BTP”, which the solicitor-general takes to mean “Commission BTP”.
The two cheques were issued only five days after BTP transferred $200,000 to Taliesin’s account. Every time BTP paid his company, according to C., he had to fork over money to the former politician.
Both cheques were cashed the next day. One was deposited on the account of a local company owned by Richardson’s distant relative. The owner told police that Richardson had come to him asking for a favour and he had fulfilled this request by depositing the cheque and giving the $20,000 to the defendant.
Richardson said on Thursday that this man had never given him a sum of $20,000. However, Richardson did say that the man once had handed him at least $8,000 as a political donation, and noted that the local company had its own independent contract with Taliesin.
The second 2017 cheque was deposited on the account of a company owned by entrepreneur Leonardo Bromet (55).
In a previous police interview, Bromet said Richardson had asked him to cash the cheque and deliver the banknotes to him. However, on Wednesday, Bromet testified that it was actually then-BTP Director Anthony Carty who had handed him the cheque and had taken the money afterward.
Bromet told the court that investigators had pressured him into implicating Richardson and that he had wanted to protect Carty because they are “close friends and family.”
The last two cheques were dated August 22, 2018, and September 3, 2018. Both were noted down Taliesin’s financial administration as “Commission BTP”.
The August 2018 cheque totalled some $9,800, and was issued on the same day that BTP paid Taliesin approximately $31,000 for repair work. C. told investigators that he had the cheque cashed and put the banknotes in an envelope for Richardson to pick up at C.’s hardware and building supplies store.
Police interviewed the store’s manager and he said C. had given him envelopes of cash and Richardson had come to collect them on several occasions.
On Thursday, Richardson did not deny that he had collected money from the store, but said these were donations to his political party “during election time.”
The September 2018 cheque was worth $25,000, and was written around the time BTP paid Taliesin some $78,000. It was cashed by Khalil Revan, who stood as a USP candidate in the 2020 election.
Revan told authorities that this was a legitimate payment for work conducted for Taliesin, and even supplied an invoice. However, for this story, the Court of First Instance last December found Revan guilty of perjury and sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment.
Richardson denied that C. had given him the September 2018 cheque, as C. had testified to
Conflict of interest?
The solicitor-general argued that Richardson had abused his political position as a member of the parliamentary TEATT Committee and the Committee of Finance by participating in a contract between Advanced Communications and Technology Services NV (ACTIS) and BTP, which was inked on March 16, 2012.
BTP paid ACTIS about NAf. 90,000 per year as a result of this agreement, with the latter company becoming the manager of St. Maarten’s new +721 telephone numbering plan.
About 35% of ACTIS’ shares were owned by Caribbean Value Estate Ltd. (CVE), and, in turn, some 50% of CVE’s shares were owned by Richardson. Then-BTP Director Carty claimed the other half of CVE’s shares.
Richardson received dividends from this arrangement for several years. The payments were given to him in cash through an intermediary and, during Thursday’s trial, the defendant said he had to be paid this way because CVE had no bank account.
Richardson denied that this was a conflict of interest. As an MP, he argued, he had no influence over BTP’s decision-making. Instead, this task fell to BTP’s supervisory board and, ultimately, the TEATT Minister.
In Richardson’s opinion, he had sufficiently distanced himself from ACTIS’ affairs because he had appointed a third party to represent him in shareholders’ meetings.
As for his role in the two parliamentary committees, he told the court that BTP had never been put on the agenda during his decade in the country’s highest legislative body. And if it had, Richardson said, he would have recused himself from the deliberations.
Instead, the solicitor-general argued that MPs do have a supervisory role over BTP because the agency’s annual budget is established through the national budget. According to the solicitor-general, Richardson therefore would have a hand in how much funds BTP would have available every year, a portion of which would be paid to his company.
Who is credible?
The prosecution’s case against Richardson hangs mainly on witness statements and the documents found in Taliesin’s financial administration.
The solicitor-general had gone through many of the witnesses in the case file and evaluated their credibility. Except for Bromet’s statement and the defendant’s own statements, he argued that the witnesses’ testimony supported each other.
This is particularly true of their detailed descriptions of Richardson demanding a cut of Taliesin’s income and the manner in which he got paid, said the solicitor-general, who called this “modus operandi” as a “type of extortion”.
The solicitor-general argued that Bromet’s latest statement is completely unreliable.
“First of all, it does not explain why he did not maintain his initial statement that he was paid [by Taliesin – Ed.]. If he was protecting Carty, there would have been no need to deviate from this story,” the solicitor-general said.
He added that there was no evidence in the interrogation transcripts that Bromet had been intimidated by police into naming Richardson as a suspect. “After all, he brought his company’s financial documents [to police] voluntarily,” said the solicitor-general.
“I don’t want to deny that Richardson gave back to the community,” the solicitor-general said. “But he also kept for himself.”