Thursday 29 September 2022

Van Lienden vowed to earn millions from ‘non-profit’ mask deal, recordings show

Sywert van Lienden in a still from a Hulptroepen.nl YouTube promo in 2020

Former CDA party activist Sywert van Lienden vowed from the start to become ‘screamingly rich’ from a deal to buy face masks for the health ministry at the start of the pandemic, recordings obtained by the Volkskrant newspaper have revealed.

Van Lienden, 31, netted around €9 million from the deal to source 40 million masks from China, most of which have never been used, while his two business partners received €5 million each, despite publicising it at the time as a not-for-profit venture.

The trio founded a non-profit organisation, Stichting Hulptroepen Alliantie (SHA), in April 2020 which immediately secured a €100 million contract from the health ministry to supply medical face masks, even though they had no track record in the field.

But two days later Van Lienden set up a private company, Relief Goods Alliance (RGA), to handle the transaction. The deal earned the trio a profit of €30 million before tax.

According to the recordings obtained by the Volkskrant, Van Lienden told his colleagues in a Zoom call on April 12 that the ministry had insisted on a commercial venture to comply with rules on competition.

Asking them if they were interested in a ‘commercial adventure’, he said: ‘We have two solutions: either we stand by our initial proposal [of a non-profit venture], which is my preference, because that’s better for healthcare.

Fraud investigation

‘If they’re not prepared to do that, then let them name their price, we’ll just bring this shit [sic] back to the Netherlands and all four of us will become millionaires’.

Van Lienden and his two companions, Bernd Damme and Camiel van Gestel, are being investigated by the prosecution service on suspicion of fraud, embezzlement and money laundering. Their bank accounts in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland have been seized along with cars, luxury goods and antiques.

The fourth partner in SHA, Saskia van Huijgevoort, split with the trio five days later after failing to persuade them to plough the profits of their venture back into the healthcare system. In a parting email she wrote: ‘I’m not interested in contributing to a (partly) commercial organisation that’s riding on the back of a non-profit at a time of crisis.’

Distribution company Coolblue and employment agency Randstad, have filed complaints of fraud against Van Lienden and his two partners on the grounds that their services were obtained under false pretences. A former colleague who worked for the trio in China has also complained to police, claiming to have been unaware it was a commercial operation.

Report delayed

A report by Deloitte into the episode, which has been delayed several times to give Van Lienden and his companions time to respond to the allegations and has already cost €4.7 million, is due to be published later this month. Van Lienden has insisted throughout that the inquiry will exonerate him.

According to the Volkskrant, Van Lienden was piqued at being dismissed from the board of the government’s own agency for distributing face masks, Landelijk Consortium Hulpmiddelen (LCH), while the ministry was concerned that the non-profit SHA would interfere with its own distribution network.

Van Lienden said in the Zoom call that he felt his original offer to acquire the masks ‘for nothing’ (om niet) had been snubbed by the government. He even talked of writing a book based on the episode with the title: ‘How the government forced me to become a millionaire.’

‘One condition is that all four of us get screamingly rich, because the government have given us a big middle finger,’ he told his colleagues. ‘I’m seriously not doing this voluntarily for any money.’

‘Venting frustration’

In a response to the Volkskrant, he said he had had a conversation earlier in the day with the head of the civil service at the health ministry that led to a ‘occasionally embarrassing conversation’ online.

‘We were venting our frustration,’ he said. ‘Some of the transcriptions of the conversation are very unfortunate and don’t match my intentions of the time or myself as a person.’

Van Lienden denied that he had been motivated by profit to set up RGA. ‘In reality it was VWS [the health ministry] that was keen to strike a deal, and specifically with me, it seems. I tried again and again to offer them a non-profit arrangement through Hulptroepen Alliantie.’

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