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The corruption affair gambled and lost

Justice came, saw and overcame the Limburg corruption affair. That officials and top executives of construction company Janssen de Jong Infra shamelessly and improperly did business with each other has been proven, according to the court. The "crooks in suits" have thus been punished and the broom has now been passed through all town halls and the governorate. But has Limburg really learned its lesson?

"We are hanging on now, while the rest are just continuing as before. Believe me, in no time it will be ball again in Limburg." These kinds of remarks, made several times in the corridors of the court in Den Bosch during the weeks-long corruption trial,do not inspire much hope.At least, for those administrators who, since the corruption scandal surrounding construction company Janssen de Jong Infra came to light, have been trying so emphatically to eradicate the image of "Limburg friends republic. It is a stubborn image that continues to haunt Limburg, partly as a result of our province's unflattering history of corruption and construction fraud scandals. Precisely because of that rich history of smearing, appeasing and massaging in the burgundy south, the affair of early 2009 hit hard. In the context of damage control, immediate action was called for.

Whereas the construction fraud cases in the nineties initially remained quiet on the part of the Limburg authorities, the nineteen mayors of South Limburg did declare war on corruption openly two years ago. Thus distancing themselves immediately from the rotten apples. "We won't let a few corrupt jerks chastise us," exclaimed Maastricht's former mayor and now Minister of Immigration and Asylum Gerd Leersin an interview with this newspaper. That was just after the first reports had come out that many South Limburg town halls as well as the government had been "graced" with a visit from an army of government investigators. The subsequent arrest of more than twenty officials and employees of the road construction company exposed an uncomfortable truth.

A new scandal that had apparently been allowed to fester under the surface for years was born. Janssen de Jong Infra itself was at the forefront to intervene immediately and, above all, to emphasize that the culture prevailing at the sites where the managers and directors suspected of corruption worked would not be symptomatic of the overall corporate culture at the road construction company. The Meerssen site, considered by JaJo to be an isolated hotbed of corruption, was decisively closed. The discredited employees were put on the street. JaJo as bv did receive a hefty fine of three million euros from the Netherlands Competition Authority (NMa), but no criminal charges were brought. "A considered decision that we did not take lightly," stressed Chief Public Prosecutor Cees van Spierenburg of the national prosecutor's office. " The company has introduced new,strict integrity rules and vetted the entire organization. Moreover, in our opinion it was also about a few rotten apples against whom measures were taken," thus Van Spierenburg. The criminal file on the JaJo affair also includes Limburg executives. They are mentioned as references in tapped telephone conversations between officials and bribers. "Of course, we looked into that extensively as well. But based on the information we had, no further investigation was done on that," is the only thing the chief public prosecutor would say about it.

Finding evidence is now simply a major factor in the decision to follow through, he admits. "There was some clever detective work, but I won't deny that some of the evidence in this case came on a silver platter. The case got rolling in part because of wiretaps in another criminal investigation. That offered so many clues that we started observing and tapping and the network of corrupt officials and builders came to the surface in full force. There is always a light bulb burning at the prosecution that you are at some litigation risk, that your whole burden of proof is being undercut. Given the court rulings, there is absolutely no question of that in this case." Scientific research by professors Hans Nelen and Leo Huberts also shows that the judiciary plays it safe when it comes to white-collar crime.Corruption is therefore one of the most difficult crimes to prove in criminal law. Favoritism is often professionally concealed and documents in which anything at all can be discovered require specialist knowledge on the part of an investigator. One-to-one links between bribes and quid pro quo are also often difficult to find. The supposed agreements between directors, officials and businessmen stand or fall with what in Mafia circles is called omerta: the great silence, even after an arrest. Hardly anyone dares to speak out about corrupt practices, making it difficult for investigative agencies to find a needle in a haystack.

"In that respect, this case involved amateur suspects. If you compare it to the big fish in real estate fraud, these are indeed small fish. But it doesn't mean you should just let them swim," Van Spierenburg said. He also sees that corruption is of all times and fraud and bribery take place everywhere.He does note that "the south you go," that culture of hustling is considered more normal. Whether it is in the South Limburg vernacular to color outside the lines and settle unger os affairs? The chief officer does not dare to comment on that. Nor about the discussion that arose last summer when Heerlen mayor Paul De pla expressed his disapproval of the fact that South Limburg administrators and officials still allow themselves to be fêted at a networking meeting paid for entirely by Q-park at the Preuvene mint in Maastricht. "It's a slippery slope.Anything you give to a civil servant to win him over is risky."

In that respect, this affair has been a model case for the prosecution anyway. Compared to the construction fraud scandals in the 1990s and at the beginning of this century, the Jajo case was less extensive, but this time there was so much evidence that the prosecution's chance to "score" was great. The prosecutors' tone from the beginning was firm, sometimes even moralistic. The wave of publicity generated by the affair was huge. "All the publicity has actually also become part of the criminal process. The coverage of this kind of case has a preventive effect. It makes it clear how hard we are taking this and what risks you run if you think it is normal to defraud or bribe someone," Van Spierenburg believes.

And the "war" of administrators like Leers and Governor Léon Frissen? That one came too. Except for one suspect, all officials were fired even before they were in court. Province-wide, a discussion erupted about integrity policy and its necessary tightening. A municipality like Heerlen itself pulled out a can of lawyers to have JaJo put on a black list, showing that it will not be pushed around. Official bodies were vetted. And the Limburg civil servant had to take another course. Back in the pews, to learn that even allowing people to actually feast on 'silly' gifts, such as a day of clay pigeon shooting or getting a drink in a Roda JC skybox at the expense of a road builder, is not acceptable and must be reported at the very least, because no matter how innocent these kinds of 'extras' may seem, it is clear from the ruling by the court in Den Bosch that bribery does start with these kinds of attempts by businessmen to seduce civil servants. According to Governor Léon Frissen, one of the lessons of this corruption case is that affairs seem to take place more on the shop floor than in the administration of government.

"It is therefore important to further strengthen internal controls. Even people in minor positions have sensitive information that others can take advantage of." The governor does not have a good word to say about what has happened in recent years in terms of minor or major incidents of integrity in South Limburg. "It's embarrassing. No nuance helps with that.As a director, I was ashamed. In recent years, a lot has been done in South Limburg, both qualitatively and quantitatively, to promote integrity. This attention has also made the subject much more sensitive, much more so than fifteen years ago. The greater attention paid to integrity by the administration has probably also resulted in more cases coming to light. In Amsterdam you saw the same phenomenon. There, 25 civil servants were fired last year for non-integrity. That's because the city council got it right. If you put a light on it, you come across more problems. If you don't, nothing comes to light either." Regarding Van Spierenburg's remarks, Frissen said, "I assume he said this in the heat of the trial, but he should have responded in a more nuanced way.Hustling certainly relates poorly to criminal law. I'm certainly not going to condone it. But certainly a chief prosecutor must substantiate his claims.Scientists come up with different figures. I don't attend Sail Amsterdam and from what I hear, few Limburgers do either. There, people from other parts of the country are entertained at other people's expense."

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