Recordings show "non-profit” face mask dealers were after millions, not philanthropy
Sywert van Lienden and his associates were out for a “commercial adventure” since early in the controversial face mask deal they made with the Ministry of Public Health, the Volkskrant reports based on recordings of conversations they had. The recordings also form part of the criminal investigation against them, according to the newspaper.
“We’ll simply bring that shit to the Netherlands, and we’ll become millionaires,” Van Lienden said in a recorded conversation on 12 April 2020. Because many conversations happened on Zoom or by telephone during the early stages of the pandemic, they were easily recorded, the newspaper pointed out. “In any case, one demand is that all four of us become screaming rich because it is one big middle finger from the government. I’m seriously not going to do this voluntarily for nothing,” Van Lienden said.
At the time, Van Lienden was still a municipal official in Amsterdam. In the weeks before that conversation, just after the coronavirus pandemic hit the Netherlands, he set up the Hulptroepen Alliantie. He devised a plan to supply and distribute face masks in the Netherlands with numerous volunteers and partners like Coolblue, Randstad, IMC, Flexport, and KLM. Van Lienden promised to do this “free of charge” and repeatedly stressed that it is a non-profit initiative.
But the Ministry of Public Health rejected this initial plan, preferring that the distribution happens through a single point so that they don’t end up competing against one another. According to the Volkskrant, the government suggested that Hulptroepen Alliantie only bring face masks to the Netherlands and leave the distribution up to the government.
Van Lienden saw this as an insult to his project, the newspaper wrote. If he were only to be a supplier, he would make money out of it. During the recorded meeting on April 12, he asked the other three participants, “who wants a commercial adventure?”
The other three people on that call were Bernd Damme, Camille van Gestel, and Saskia van Huijgevoort. Van Huijgevoort eventually broke with the other three and made nothing from the deal. Van Lienden, Damme, and Van Gestel ended with a profit of about 30 million euros.
In a response to the Volkskrant, Van Lienden described the recorded call as an “at times embarrassing internal conversation.” “We expressed our frustrations in it,” he said. “Some texts from the conversation are quite unfortunate and do not match my intentions at the time or with me as a person.”
Van Lienden said they weren’t out for commercial gain. “Pretty much the opposite. It was the Ministry of Public Health that wanted to make a deal. Especially with me, apparently. I tried time and again to come up with a non-profit proposal through the Hulptroepen Alliantie.”
The Public Prosecution Service suspects Van Lienden, Damme, and Van Gestel of embezzlement, fraud, and money laundering. The authorities have seized their bank accounts and assets in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. Coolblue and Randstad have pressed charges of fraud against them.