The Hague, Netherlands – In April 2020, as in many other countries, the Dutch government was shocked by the coronavirus and vigorously tried to find ways to deal with the pandemic.
The country was closed, COVID-19 cases increased, hospitals were filled and PPE demand was much higher than supply.
Enter Sywert van Lienden.
The 30-year-old official, the political lobby, the media personality and the talk show regularly expressed their concerns about the lack of facial masks to his big followers on social media and announced that he was creating a non-profit foundation to import EPI, Stichting Hulptroepen Alliantie.
“There are no zero gains for me,” he said.
He soon managed to secure a large number of Chinese facial masks along with two colleagues, businessmen Bernd Damme and Camille van Gestel.
The work of the foundation was applauded and van Lienden wanted to publicly share his achievements.
The temporary agency Randstad provided the foundation with volunteer staff and companies such as KLM, CoolBlue and Flexport offered their services.
The Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS) placed an order for 40 million face masks for 100.8 million euros ($ 121 million), an average of 2.52 euros per mask ($ 3) .
Another buyer was Jos de Blok, founder and CEO of the nursing home organization Buurtzorg Nederland.
“The government did not receive any PPE from domestic workers and district nurses, so we decided to import masks ourselves,” Blok told Jazeera.
He placed an order for facial masks at a rate of 1.50 euros ($ 1.8) each, significantly lower than that of VWS.
It is advancing rapidly in early 2021.
Journalists from the De Volkskrant newspaper and the investigative journalism platform Follow The Money investigated an example that states that the mask deal may not be as non-profit as van Lienden initially claimed.
On May 15, De Volkskrant reported that van Lienden and his partners founded a limited company shortly after the foundation was launched.
The government order of 100.8 million euros was made through this limited company which received the name of Relief Goods Alliance (RGA), a translation of the name of the foundation.
Two weeks later, Follow the Money reported that van Lienden made at least 9 million euros ($ 11 million) in profits from the deal and his colleagues about 5 million euros ($ 6 million) each.
“We knew we were into something and something peculiar was going on,” Follow The Money journalist Stefan Vermeulen told Al Jazeera. “And then we found evidence that won more than 20 million euros ($ 24 million). That news was lightning in a bottle.
The 40 million face masks were never used and are still stored. The Dutch ministry that made the purchase, VWS, says this is because there is enough supply. However, in another twist, there are allegations that the masks contain graphene.
The Dutch National Institute of Public Health and the Environment rejected the masks, but it is not an official testing body.
Graphene is not considered a hazardous substance, but last month Canadian authorities advised people not to wear masks containing the thin, thin layer of graphite.
Anger and politics
The scandal caused a huge uproar and van Lienden, the best known of the three, has faced a fierce media reaction.
Van Lienden declined Al Jazeera’s request for comment on this article.
Tom Kreling, one of the De Volkskrant journalists who broke the news, said the situation is twofold.
“He’s very famous, so he managed to get access to the minister and negotiate a deal,” Kreling told Al Jazeera.
“He’s always said he does it for nothing and now that it’s false, it gets a lot of attention.”
But there is also a political aspect to this controversial business transaction.
“Van Lienden is affiliated with the CDA [the Christian Democratic Party]. He co-wrote the election manifesto. The question is how much their political connection contributed, ”Kreling said.
The story comes at a turbulent time for the Dutch government, after several serious scandals.
This past weekend, prominent CDA politician Pieter Omtzigt left the party after his letter was leaked revealing his mistreatment by party members.
“This adds to the CDA’s image as a party in crisis,” said Dirk Jan Wolffram of the University of Groningen, professor of History of Governance and Politics of Modern Times. “Van Lienden’s deal may not be the most important issue for them, but it gives this idea, ‘Look, those Christian Democrats are doing something heavy again.’
The party is the fourth largest country since the March general election. All attempts to form a new cabinet have failed.
The CDA was quick to say it was seeking to expel van Lienden, a member of the party valued above.
The National Consortium of Government Resources, LCH, claims that the mask agreement between RGA and VWS was not necessary as the LCH already had enough supply.
Opposition political parties questioned health care minister Tamara van Ark, who claimed the deal was legitimately made.
Since then, the cabinet has promised an external and independent investigation into the deal.
“In the Netherlands, we were stunned to see that since the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of government money was available,” Wolffram said. “Of course, everyone supported it at the time, but people have started questioning that spending recently.”
Van Lienden broke the silence in a recent television interview.
He apologized for his lack of transparency, but argued that it was called confidentiality. He stated that this construction was required by the government and that they were aware of it.
The CDA board is investigating van Lienden’s claim to report part of its business activities.
“Van Lienden is the emblem of the betrayal of a society in times of crisis, and that is what bothers Dutch people,” said Farid Azarkan, a member of the Dutch House of Representatives and leader of the political party DENK.
“We need more transparency. Why did VWS buy the masks for 2.52 euros, while others paid less? ”
For mental health worker Frank Visser, this is one more example of “typical Dutch politics.”
“It’s a friendship,” Visser told Al Jazeera. “I should return the money to the healthcare sector.”
So what will happen to the 9 million euros?
Van Lienden, promising to “adjust his moral compass,” suggested investing the sum and using the profits for cancer research.
But so far, two Dutch cancer foundations and the Princess Maxima Pediatric Oncology Center have said they would refuse to accept money if approached.
They said it belongs to taxpayers and suggested that it be returned to the Ministry of Health Care.
“I think it’s great for foundations to say they don’t want the money. It’s dirty money, “Jules van der Weerd, a Dutch citizen working as a process manager, told Al Jazeera.
“I think a lot of people have made lucrative deals during this pandemic, which is understandable, but this deal smells good. It confirms the gut feeling of people going through something shady in government. “
Azarkan proposed two motions against van Lienden this week.
“We’re giving him two options,” Azarkan told Al Jazeera. “Either the money returns or we will do everything we can to get it back. It’s about taxpayers’ money. “
The motions will be debated on Tuesday.