More details emerge about face mask scandal, minister was involved

Sywert van Lienden in a still from a YouTube promo

More details have been emerging about a controversial government agreement to spend €100 mn on face masks at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and which made three young entrepreneurs millionaires.

The Volkskrant reports on Wednesday that the then-health minister Hugo de Jonge did play a role in brokering the deal, even though face masks and protective clothing did not fall under his remit.

The paper used freedom of information legislation to access text and Whatsapp messages surrounding the deal which show that De Jonge did ask senior ministry officials to contact Sywert van Lienden, a former Amsterdam council official and CDA activist, who was the public face of the campaign.

‘You can better have that Sywert inside pissing out than outside pissing in,’ De Jonge said in a message to his most senior aide. De Jonge was referencing highly critical social media messages placed by Van Lienden about the government’s mask purchasing strategy.

The pressure from the minister resulted in a flurry of phone calls over the Easter weekend and, eventually, a €100m deal.

Limited company

Meanwhile, investigative website Follow the Money, which is publishing a book on the scandal later this week, reports that Van Lienden and his two colleagues had already started setting up a limited company to carry out the transaction before any deal had been signed with the health ministry.

Van Lienden maintained publicly that the face masks were being arranged via a non-profit foundation, but this later transpired not to be true. He later claimed the limited company had been set up at the behest of the health ministry.

But according to FTM, Van Lienden’s partner Bernd Damme commissioned work to start on forming the limited company on April 9, before any proposal had been sent to the health ministry and before detailed talks on the plan had taken place.

The public prosecution department is currently investigating the deal following a formal complaint by staffing agency Randstad, which provided several workers free of charge to what it thought was a non profit venture.

The €100m government order netted Van Lienden €9m and the others €5m each.

Update: On Wednesday afternoon, health minister Hugo de Jonge said suggestions that he had been involved in the deal were not accurate, but he declined to comment further, pending the outcome of an official investigation into the scandal.

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