PHILIPSBURG–Port St. Maarten Group of Companies (PSGC) and its Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Mark Mingo (48) have “fallen victim to their own success,” attorney-at-law Geert Hatzmann said on behalf of his client during the third day of hearings in the “Emerald” case on Thursday.
In the investigation the currently suspended Harbour CEO is suspected of swindling the port out of US $10 million by using “fake” invoices for work by one-man construction companies which was never done.
In case of a conviction, Mingo may have to spend four years in prison and may also be banned from being a board member of any government-owned company in St. Maarten for five years.
Speaking on Mingo’s behalf, Hatzmann said that his client, who was arrested June 7, 2017, should be acquitted of all charges.
He said his client had an impeccable track record at the Port. When Mingo was appointed CEO at the Harbour in July 2002, the Port had a modest turnover of $5 million and under his leadership during the next 15 years the company has undergone a rapid evolution.
In 2017, the annual turnover of the port amounted to $50 million and it generated a turnover of $400 million for the island, the lawyer said.
The Prosecutor’s Office is of the opinion that Mingo has financially duped the Port, but according to the lawyer this is not the case. “Approved annual financial reports from 2009 to 2015 show that the Port Authority as a whole made a profit in that period of more than $9.2 million.”
Hatzmann said the Harbour’s expansion had gone so fast that the company’s organisation could not keep pace. In April 2014 consultancy company Ernst & Young were hired to screen the company.
In an operational-audit report of August 2014, Ernst & Young said there were several points of improvement. “For example, it was found that the ‘span of control’ of the CEO was far too comprehensive. [My – Ed.] client was directly responsible for all operational departments (except finance), as well as for the commercial branch of the organisation.”
According to Hatzmann, PSGC fell victim to its own success. The government – also shareholder – considered the Port as the job driver par excellence, especially for small local subcontractors and low-skilled young men with few opportunities on the regular labour market.
With this the term “local content” was born, which, according to the lawyer, had nothing to do with swindle in using fake invoices. The term was first used by Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication Thadeus Richardson during an introductory meeting with the Supervisory Board and Mingo in August 2013.
“During this meeting the minister indicated that it was a big priority for him to involve local people in port projects and to hire local contractors,” said Hatzmann.
Local content was a priority in harbour projects also before and after Richardson’s stint as a minister; for instance, in trucking sand and for clean-up operations, also because the Port’s Maintenance Department was not functioning well and was short-staffed.
According to Hatzmann, agreements were made with the Supervisory Board about the cost of local content, among other things by determining a lump-sum budget based on rules of thumb for the use of workers and materials and working hours.
He said that Chief Financial Officer Ton van Kooten had provided updates to the Board pertaining to expenditures per project and had mentioned budget overruns.
“In no way my client has acted secretly and has left the Supervisory Board ignorant of the expenditures in the context of local content.” In fact, Mingo had insisted that an internal project agency should be established to coordinate and control, his lawyer added.
Hatzmann denied that Mingo had been involved in drafting any invoices and stated that his client could also not be considered a co-perpetrator of swindle.
According to the Prosecutor, the 272 fake invoices submitted to the Port between April 2012 and July 2017 had a total value of $6.8 million. This means, said Hatzmann, that these invoices represented a value of not more than $1.6 million per year. “Considering that the Port’s turnover was $50 million, then that amount of seven to eight million in five years’ time is essentially not that high at all.”
He said his client would only have had an interest in such a swindle if he had received “kickbacks” in return. “My client denies this and also in the case file there is no evidence whatsoever: no incriminating telephone or WhatsApp conversations, there are no suspect transactions or unexplained amounts of cash. There is nothing at all.”
Hatzmann said the Prosecutor’s Office is “sceptical” and even “cynical” that the Port entered into a business relationship with co-suspect O’Neal Arrindell in his capacity as the Port’s public relations officer and complaint broker (see related story).
Mingo knew that Arrindell had a close relationship with new portfolio holder Frans Richardson – and therefore with the then-new minister Romeo Pantophlet and, therefore, thought it a wise move to appoint Arrindell as a liaison.
“Arrindell could ensure that a good working relationship was established with the new shareholder and that the port could … implement projects,” Hatzmann stated.
One of these projects was a dredging project by company Devcon TCI Ltd., but Mingo contested that payment, for the 2012 project had included an exorbitant fee for Arrindell’s assistance in finalising the contract.
Bron: Daily Herald