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Integrity

Mayors, aldermen, and council members embroiled in controversy: ‘Integrity is a black box.’

Een burgemeester die beticht wordt van seksueel grensoverschrijdend gedrag, een voor corruptie veroordeelde wethouder die toch terug mag keren of raadsleden die elkaar aan de haren trekken. De afgelopen jaren raakten meer dan honderd lokale bestuurders in opspraak, maar het zicht op misstanden is beperkt.

A mayor accused of sexual misconduct, a council member convicted of corruption yet allowed to return, or council members physically clashing with each other. In recent years, more than a hundred local officials have been embroiled in controversy, yet the visibility of these misconducts is limited. “There is so much we don’t know.”

Fraud, embezzlement, and accepting gifts, Peter Tielemans, in his time as a council member, city center manager, and councilor in Helmond, left a trail of unsavory dealings. The court in Den Bosch was unequivocal when it sentenced the former councilor to a suspended prison sentence and the repayment of 140,000 euros at the end of last year. For instance, in the year he became a councilor in 2010, he accepted a donation of 10,000 euros on behalf of his party from a coffee shop. This was precisely when the municipality was discussing granting a license for a second coffee shop owned by the same person. Moreover, Tielemans used the party account for private payments and defrauded the municipality by transferring 32,500 euros to a friend who was a project manager, despite no project ever materializing.

Serie verhalen over integriteit gemeenten

Series of Stories on Integrity in Municipalities

RTL News conducted an investigation into integrity breaches in Dutch municipalities. This is the final part of a series. While previous articles mainly focused on civil servants, this article delves into misconduct within the municipal administration, the city council, mayors, and councilors. Here are the articles, in Dutch:

In Controversy

It’s rare for a municipal administrator to be convicted of misconduct. However, since 2020, more than a hundred councilors, mayors, and city council members have been embroiled in controversy due to potential integrity violations, according to an inventory by RTL News based on Freedom of Information (Woo) requests and reporting in local and regional media. It involves at least 16 mayors, 52 councilors, and 46 city council members. They came under scrutiny for reasons such as deleting text messages, corruption, sexual misconduct, cronyism, conflicts of interest, verbal altercations, and close contacts with extremist groups. In many cases, such issues led to resignation and sometimes to conviction. In other cases, the situation was less severe, and investigations found that the official was not at fault. A map provides an overview of substantiated, unsubstantiated, and ongoing cases where a local politician was embroiled in controversy.

There is also the looming threat of criminal influence among all these misconducts. Administrative positions are vulnerable to this, as research from the University of Groningen in 2017 shows. The researchers received indications of infiltration with criminal intent from a quarter of all municipalities. This infiltration was primarily observed and suspected among council members (48) and councilors (27). Seven times, it involved a mayor.

According to Toon Kerkhoff, a university lecturer in public administration at Leiden University, people expect political officeholders to exhibit integrity in their actions. They have an even greater role as role models than civil servants, yet administrative integrity is a ‘neglected area’, Kerkhoff states. “Government officials need to set boundaries for themselves, and they are often reluctant to do so. The lack of willingness is a point of concern.”

Landsmeer

The atmosphere at the Landsmeer town hall plummeted below freezing when multiple complaints about inappropriate behavior by councilor Marion Breij towards civil servants were received. There were reports of demeaning behavior, shouting, swearing, and slamming doors. Civil servants spoke of an unsafe work environment. Additionally, it was revealed that Breij had interfered in the development of an area where she herself owned land, despite external advice against it. Although she had not influenced the plans around that area, she ‘gave the appearance of a conflict of interest, according to those involved’, stated an external research firm that investigated the allegations last year. According to Breij’s former fellow councilor, Erik Heinrich, the atmosphere in the town hall was tense. “Everyone was walking around a bit dejected, thinking: this is going wrong, when will the bomb burst?” Civil servants left or considered leaving after confrontations. “There are people who are, in a sense, damaged. Things have happened that you would rather keep behind closed doors.” But keeping it under wraps would be counterproductive, believes the former councilor. “If issues are covered up, then we don’t learn anything from them.”

Former councilor Breij, in response, says the allegations are incorrect. “I do not recognize myself at all in the report or the complaint.” She emphasizes that although the appearance of a conflict of interest is mentioned in the report, it was not officially marked as a breach of integrity.

Black Box

Leonie Heres, who researches administrative integrity and is a special professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, notes that while there has been extensive research on the integrity of civil servants, the same is not true for administrators. “It’s a kind of black box. There is so much we don’t know. Awareness seems to be increasing somewhat, but it also frequently falls short.” According to Heres, some municipalities do not have proper protocols for dealing with integrity issues, and confidentially discussing dilemmas is not always easy.

Return after Conviction

“The relationships in local government are not comparable to those between employer and employee. A council member has a mandate from the voters and cannot simply be dismissed, for example. The mayor is the guardian of integrity, but at the same time, his position depends on the council. Furthermore, there can be political considerations for bringing issues to light or not.” This means that everyone deals with integrity in a different way. For instance, in 2022, the municipality of Roermond saw no objections to reappointing Jos van Rey as a councilor, despite his previous convictions for corruption and election fraud. Similarly, in other parts of the country, council members or councilors were able to return after integrity breaches. Professor of criminology Hans Nelen from Maastricht University has serious reservations about this. “Everyone deserves a second chance, but that does not mean everyone should again be given the opportunity to hold an important public office.”

“It’s a telling sign that we don’t seem to find it important that a councilor who has been convicted of corruption all the way to the Supreme Court can simply be reinstalled in the same position. It indicates moral indifference. If you want to prevent undermining and take administrative and civil service integrity seriously, that’s a poor signal.”

‘Avoid Any Appearance’

According to Professor of Integrity Rob van Eijbergen at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, any appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided. “In America, you might become president while you’re in jail. But for the trust of citizens in the government, it’s absolutely not good.”

“I sometimes receive calls from councilors who want the municipality to do business with a construction company owned by a family member, and they want to do everything properly according to the rules. But then I say: it’s not about whether you are convinced that everything is going well, it’s about the outside world that can see the appearance of a conflict of interest. You just have to avoid that.”

Accountability

For this investigation, information was obtained from Woo requests to all municipalities regarding reported integrity violations between 2020 and 2022. This was supplemented with cases found by the RTL News investigative team in regional media, but not revealed through the Woo request. It also drew from court judgments and websites of municipalities and city councils.

Not every issue has been proven or substantiated. Some reports or complaints turned out to be unfounded after investigation. Sometimes, there was no investigation, or it is still ongoing. Sometimes, integrity investigations appear to be used to settle internal disputes. Because the individuals involved in those cases were also discredited, and this has had an effect on interpersonal relationships and the governance culture, these cases have also been included.

Source: RTL.nl, d.d. 2 December 2023