It’s not good timing for an expenses scandal just weeks before the provincial elections for the VVD. The VVD-Labour government already has to forge alliances with the opposition to get legislation through the Senate. Now it looks like the government parties will end up with an even smaller minority, as the upcoming provincial elections indirectly determine the political make-up of the Senate. If that happens, Rutte II could become a lame duck sitting out the second half of its term.
So it is not really surprising that both Prime Minister Mark Rutte and leader of the parliamentary VVD party Halbe Zijlstra brushed off accusations in the NRC newspaper that MP Mark Verheijen had declared travel costs for journeys which he had used a provincial government car for. Both VVD leaders said the media fuss was out of proportion, and as Verheijen was willing to pay the money back the matter was closed.
However, it also came to light that rising star Verheijen from Limburg had also declared costs for a meal to the tune of 500 euros. During the meal with real estate dealer Piet van Pol and Jos van Rey (former VVP senator and alderman), both of whom are under investigation for corruption, a bottle of wine costing 127 euros was opened. According to the NRC, Piet van Pol donated more than 10,000 euros to Verheijen’s personal election campaign. Speaking in Verheijen’s defence, Van Rey said they agreed to share the costs for the meal (over 2600 euros). Still it is not clear why Verheijen saw fit to declare the meal as expenses to the provincial purse.
Although Verheijen himself asked the VVD’s integrity committee to investigate his declarations. He only decided to temporarily stand down when a building firm in Limburg filed a complaint against him with the police for nepotism during his term as alderman in Venlo. When the committee found last week that the MP had broken the VVD’s own integrity rules, he resigned. Ironically the integrity committee was set up following a corruption investigation against Van Rey in 2012, who was subsequently forced to resign as VVD leader in the Senate and as alderman in Roermond.
Now the VVD is investigating whether a VVD party held at the Floriade in Venlo in 2012 was paid for by tax payers. At the time, Verheijen was Provincial Governor with the horticultural show in his portfolio and on the board of the Floriade foundation. According to newspaper AD, an invoice for the event was never sent to the party. During the event, Floriade made huge losses, costing the local authorities which were shareholders millions of euros.
Van Rey, who is no longer a member of the VVD after setting up a rival party in Roermond, was quick to come to Verheijen’s defence. Hardly a vindication. Rutte on the other hand was forced to admit he’d been too quick to defend the promising MP, which led to tumult among the party’s backbenchers, who are sick of corruption scandals. Now there are strong rumours within the VVD that Van Rey himself may have been behind the revelations against Verheijen. Out of revenge. The two Limburg politicians had once been political allies, but Verheijen dropped his political friend when corruption charges were brought against him. And Van Rey has an axe to grind with the VVD leadership.
However, the VVD is not the only party facing embarrassing headlines. Marjolein Faber, who is heading the Freedom Party’s list in the provincial elections, employed her own son to run a website for the provincial Freedom Party. It is against provincial rules to employ your own family members. Interestingly it was the same woman, who sifted through receipts and subsidy policies to makes sure not a cent was being wasted in the province.
Her finest moment must have been when the newly installed deputy minister Co Verdaas was forced to stand down at the beginning of Rutte’s second cabinet over declarations for journeys he had not made as Provincial Governor in Gelderland. Now Ms Faber says she will pay her son out of her own pocket and not use the Freedom Party subsidy. As far as she is concerned the matter has been resolved. However in doing so she admits she was wrong and calls for her resignation are getting louder.
Another matter that has further damaged people’s confidence in their democratic leaders is a recent report how successive governments failed to protect the interests of ordinary people in Groningen against the economic interests of the NAM (Shell and ExxonMobile) which extracts natural gas in the province. For decades the voices of the people had been ignored when they complained earthquakes caused by the gas extraction were causing damage to their homes. Recently VVD MP René Leegte was overheard in the train discussing government tactics by mobile telephone such as avoiding the press and keeping Groningers in the dark. He was returning from Groningen after meeting with various parties on the issue. An anti-fossil fuel activist in the same carriage promptly tweeted his comments for everyone to read. After the report vindicated the Groningers’ complaints, Economic Affairs Minister Henk Kamp expressed regret that things had gone the way they had. However, he stopped short of apologising or taking measures to prevent future earthquakes. The decision on whether to further limit gas extraction in Groningen has been put off until after the provincial elections.
Back in The Hague a storm is brewing over whether or not the Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten misinformed parliament – a political mortal sin – over how much money confiscated by the court was paid back to a drugs baron. Effectively the Public Prosecutor laundered criminal money, however deals like this are apparently commonplace. In a debate last year the minister said the criminal received 1.25 million guilders, but lawyers say it was almost 5 million guilders. The ministry says it cannot trace the receipt for the money. This new scandal could potentially bring down the minister and his deputy minister Fred Teeven – who was Public Prosecutor at the time and responsible for the deal.
Lies and scandals will do nothing to encourage voters to put their faith in politicians. After the sale of the national electricity companies, the provinces have a lot of money to spend. But will that money be put to public use or be frittered away. The provinces already lost money deposited in Icesave accounts when the internet bank crashed back in 2008. Provincial governments are responsible for nature in rural areas, roads and transport and regional economic policies. However, few people care much about the provincial elections at the best of times, let alone the simultaneous elections for the water board. The water boards are the country’s oldest democratic institution and are basically responsible for keeping our feet dry. No-one really knows who the candidates are or what they stand for. The politicians will be out canvassing in towns and cities in the coming weeks. However, it will be an uphill struggle to get people to come out to vote.