Friday, March 28, 2008

Rentgate damages reputations

by political editor John Tyler

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen had some explaining to do in parliament on Thursday. Members of the opposition accused him of misinforming parliament in a scandal involving a former Dutch politician, the United Nations, and a luxury New York apartment.

The controversy centres around former Labour Party Development Minister Eveline Herfkens, and a rental subsidy she received from the Dutch government while working for the UNDP. Starting in late 2002, Ms Herfkens received $7,000 per month to pay for a luxury apartment in New York City. Over the years, her living arrangements cost the Dutch taxpayer $280,000.

Against UN rules
It came to light last year that this arrangement was against UN rules. For this and other reasons, the UNDP put Ms Herfkens on non-active status, and both the UN and the Dutch government opened inquiries to find out who was responsible.

On the basis of his own inquiries, Foreign Minister Verhagen informed parliament that it was not possible to ascertain who had initiated the subsidy construction - Mrs Herfkens or the foreign ministry.

But this week a member of the Socialist Party produced an internal foreign ministry memo, dated October, 2002, in which the ministry seems to suggest the subsidy construction. This led to the accusation that Minister Verhagen was holding something back.

Mr Verhagen vehemently denies that he has been less than fully cooperative. He says prior to the October memo, there was at least one meeting between Ms Herfkens and foreign ministry officials.

"It's absolutely not true that I misinformed parliament. I told parliament that it's not obvious which side took the initiative for getting the rental subsidy. I can't see, in all the documents, who took the initiative, Ms Herfkens or the government."

MPs want their money back
In addition to finding out how this situation came to pass, a majority in parliament would also like Herfkens to pay the money back. Mr Verhagen says the chance of this happening is very small. She has already declined a request to return the subsidy voluntarily, and the Foreign Minister thinks the government does not have a good legal case to force her to do so.

But many parliamentarians disagree. Member of parliament from the Conservative VVD party, Arend Jan Boekestijn, says he will submit a motion requiring Herfkens to reimburse the government, and he thinks a majority in parliament will support it.

Asked how Minister Verhagen comes out of the affair, Mr Boekestijn replied:

"Weakened. But that's also his own position because he admitted that the foreign ministry did a very bad job."

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