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Former Sint Maarten Court House Manager Maritsa James Christina And Husband Facing Three Years For Embezzling Almost $1.000.000

Former branch manager of the St. Maarten courthouse M.J.-C. is facing a three-year unconditional prison sentence for a host of suspected corrupt practices, including allegedly embezzling around US $921,500 from the Joint Court of Justice’s third-party account from January 2014 to December 2017.

  In addition to this offence, J.-C. stood trial in the Court of First Instance on Friday on four other charges. She is also suspected of embezzling NAf. 96,200 from the Constitutional Court from June 2013 to September 2018, defrauding the Minister of Justice to the tune of NAf. 50,000 in June 2018, forgery of a Windward Islands Bank (WIB) money-transfer form in September 2016, and money-laundering of both embezzled amounts.

  For these five crimes, the prosecutor demanded three years’ imprisonment on two years’ probation and a fine of NAf. 50,000. In case of non-payment, the prosecutor demanded an additional year in prison.

  Her husband R.A.J. also stood trial on Friday in this case. He is suspected of having laundered approximately $140,000 over a four-year period, which he deposited into the couple’s joint bank accounts.

  For this crime, the prosecutor demanded a suspended prison sentence of one year and 240 hours of community service on two years’ probation.

Missing cash

  The investigation – which has been dubbed “Triggerfish” – started after the vice president of the Court of First Instance filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office in March 2018. The complaint raised the suspicion that J.-C. had been illegally withdrawing cash from the Joint Court’s third-party accounts.

  J.-C., who became the branch manager in October 2010, had access to third-party accounts and had been authorised to independently sign cheques until 2015.

  The money deposited into the third-party accounts is not intended for the Court, instead to be put in safekeeping on behalf of third parties pending a decision from the Court. For example, into these accounts will go money seized during a criminal investigation. When the Court has ruled in the case, the money will be returned to the defendant (if pronounced innocent) or into the coffers of government (if irrevocably convicted).

  The Joint Court conducted an internal investigation into its third-party accounts from 2013 to 2017. When the total documented deposits were measured against the total documented expenses, the balance on the accounts should have stood around $2.94 million. However, the actual balance was a mere $152,000, which meant that around $2.79 million was unaccounted for.

  The National Detectives found that a total of $1.8 million had been withdrawn in cashed cheques from the third-party accounts between January 2014 and December 2017. Most of the cheques were made out to defendant J.-C. and two others – a cleaning staff member of the Court and someone not even employed there. These two would later tell detectives that J.-C. had asked them to cash the cheques and return the money to her.

  In 2017 alone, some $245,000 was withdrawn in cash via 47 separate cheques. For all but one of these cheques there was no substantiating documentation to indicate why the cash was being withdrawn.

  “I would like to believe that written documents will not be available for all payments in four years, but the fact that there is no paperwork for any of these payments is nothing short of remarkable,” said the prosecutor.

  There were a total of 156 withdrawals on the third-party accounts between 2014 and 2017. The same amounts were only deposited in 18 cases in this same period. The investigation found similar unexplained sums being withdrawn from 2010 to 2013, but J.-C. has not been indicted for this period.

  “There is no deposited amount against the many withdrawals of the same amount. That is an important factor in this case,” said the Prosecutor. “For the incoming amounts – although not complete – records were found … but for the expenses paid with the cash withdrawn with cheques, hardly any records could be found.”

  The prosecutor considered it proven that roughly $921,500 had been embezzled from the Joint Court between 2014 and 2017, which corresponded to the sum of all unsubstantiated and unjustified amounts that occurred more than four times during this period.

  The prosecutor also considered it proven that J.-C. had embezzled about NAf. 96,200 from the Constitutional Court between June 2013 and 2018 for judges’ travel and per diem allowances. During this period, she allegedly withdrew exorbitant amounts, paid for the expenses, and pocketed the difference. The prosecutor argued that in 2015 she withdrew NAf. 23,305 for four visits, but this exceeded the trips’ total expenses by almost NAf. 9,000.

  From that time onward, the embezzlement became bolder, argued the prosecutor. In 2016, about NAf. 33,105 was withdrawn which could not be justified based on ticket prices and per diem expenses.

  There was only one official work visit for the Constitutional Court in 2017, for which NAf. 2,800 was paid in March. Government deposited roughly NAf. 50,000 into the Constitutional Court’s accounts in July 2017, earmarked for the year’s travel expenses. In the span of a month, this entire amount had disappeared via eight separate cheques. Not a single official visit took place for the rest of 2017.

Fraud, forgery

  The prosecutor considered it proven that J.-C. had committed forgery to cover up her alleged pillaging of the Joint Court’s third-party accounts.

  In September 2016, the Chief Prosecutor ordered sums of roughly $1.1 million, NAf. 49,500 and 21,500 euros to be returned to the Prosecutor’s Office following the irrevocable judgement of a suspect.

  At this point, the Joint Court’s third-party accounts stood around $671,000 – too little to make the ordered payment. This was a situation that could not have arisen unless embezzlement had been taking place, argued the prosecutor.

  J.-C. allegedly drew up the money-transfer form, had the judge sign it, then changed the amounts and account numbers. Some of the funds were thereby transferred from the Court’s regular account, not the third-party account.

  The changed forms had the judge’s initials as authorisations, but when questioned by detectives, the judge said that she had not placed her initials on the document.

  “To conceal the fact that a large amount of money had disappeared, the defendant had falsified the transfer forms. … The forms were submitted to the bank and payments were made, partly based on the changes made by the suspect,” said the prosecutor. “Because of these payments, at least in the short term, no alarm bells started ringing. Not at the Court, and not at the Prosecutor’s Office.”

  The prosecutor also considered it proven that J.-C. had defrauded the Minister of Justice in 2018.

  In early September 2018, J.-C. tried to reopen an already closed bank account of the Constitutional Court. A couple days before, the bank’s management alerted law enforcement about J.-C.’s intentions. By this time, she had already been suspended from the Joint Court on suspicions of embezzlement.

  J.-C. was arrested on September 7, 2018. She possessed several documents at the time of her arrest, including a letter to then-Justice Minister Cornelius de Weever, which requested that he deposit NAf. 50,000 into the bank account that she was only then trying to open. As justification for the deposit, she told De Weever that the Court’s finances were in dire straits because no payments had been made for the Court’s travel expenses in 2017.

  This was untrue, as government had paid NAf. 50,000 in July 2017. At that time, Rafael Boasman was the sitting Justice Minister. De Weever took over from Boasman on January 15, 2018.

  “J.-C. must have known [government had already paid – Ed.]. After all, in 2017, J.-C. had the entire amount withdrawn within a month,” said the prosecutor.

Money-laundering

  J.-C. and her husband J. were guilty of money-laundering, argued the prosecutor. Between 2014 and 2017, the couple deposited almost $253,000 into their bank accounts. Some deposits occurred within no less than eight days of money being withdrawn from the Joint Court’s third-party accounts, sometimes on the exact same day.

  The couple told the Court that this money came from their numerous rental properties.

  However, the prosecutor found this story implausible, as the total estimated rent during this period could not have been more than $110,000, and this assumed full occupancy and little repair work. With more than $140,000 that cannot be traced to legitimate sources of income, the prosecutor considered the pair guilty of money-laundering.

  Although husband J. had no hand in embezzlement, the prosecutor argued that he must have known about it.

  “It must have been clear that the money received from J.-C. came from a crime. After all, the money he deposited did not come from regular income and could not come from rental income,” said the prosecutor. “If it had been a few hundred dollars, J. would not have had to ask any further questions, but in this case it’s at least an extra $35,000 per year. Alarm bells must go off. If you do not ask questions in such situations, you accept the significant probability that the money came from a crime.”

  The prosecutor acknowledged that it is still unclear what happened to the rest of money that J.-C. allegedly embezzled, but offered some guesses.

  “Some of the money ended up in the couple’s bank accounts, which paid the mortgage and loans, among other things. … It must be assumed that the defendants benefited from the embezzled money themselves, possibly with others,” said the prosecutor. “This happened quite shamelessly. A striking example is an expensive holiday with the whole extended family to an expensive hotel in Curaçao during the holidays of the end of 2016. Or the purchase of a car for the defendants’ daughter.”

Innocent plea

  “I am innocent,” defendant J.-C. told the Court in a prepared statement on Friday, refuting all allegations against her. Describing herself as a “hardworking person with a humble personality”, she told the judge that in her nearly four decades of working at the Court she had received no complaints and was always evaluated positively.

  “I was too loyal. I did everything for this organisation,” she said.

  Her husband also denied all charges against him, saying in a final word that the only money he had received from his wife and deposited on his accounts was their legitimately-derived rental income.

  Attorney-at-law Zylena Bary pleaded for her client’s acquittal on all charges during an impassioned, thorough, and technical four-hour refutation of the evidence in the case file.

  She argued that the case was inadmissible because of wrongdoings in the investigative process, the search of the defendants’ properties, and the circumstances surrounding J.-C.’s arrest. The husband was never arrested, but had been questioned by detectives.

  Bary provided an alternative scenario for the missing documentation, centred around Hurricane Irma’s extensive damage to the Courthouse in September 2017. Some of the Court’s administration had been contaminated with mould and had been destroyed, she said.

  Bary questioned the prosecutor’s assumptions about the defendants’ rental income and the usual amount spent on the Constitutional Court’s official visits.

  She also questioned the prosecutor’s perceived guesswork about the flow of allegedly embezzled money. “The Prosecutor’s Office should not guess, but prove,” she argued.

  The judge will render a verdict in this case on May 7.

  In January 2020, the Civil Service Court found that J.-C. was rightly suspended and dismissed by the Joint Court of Justice’s management board. She was also ordered to repay $1,015,295 to the Court for third-party funds that cannot be accounted for.

DAILY HERALD

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