The Hague, The Netherlands – In April 2020, as in many other countries, the Dutch government was caught off guard by the coronavirus and vigorously tried to find ways to deal with the pandemic.
The country was in lockdown, COVID-19 cases surged, hospitals filled up and the demand for PPE was much higher than the supply.
Enter Sywert van Lienden.
The 30-year old civil servant, political lobbyist, media personality and talk show regular expressed his concerns about the lack of face masks to his large following on social media and announced he was setting up a non-profit foundation to import PPE, Stichting Hulptroepen Alliantie.
“There is zero gain in it for me,” he said.
Soon, he managed to secure a large supply of face masks from China together with two companions, entrepreneurs Bernd Damme and Camille van Gestel.
The foundation’s work was applauded and van Lienden was keen to publicly share his successes.
Temp agency Randstad provided the foundation with volunteer staffers 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 ($121m) – an average of 2.52 euros per mask ($3).
Jos de Blok, founder and CEO of the care home organisation Buurtzorg Nederland, was another buyer.
“Care home workers and district nurses weren’t given any PPE from the government, so we decided to import face masks ourselves,” de Blok told al Jazeera.
He placed an order for face masks at the rate of 1.50 euros ($1.8) apiece, significantly less than VWS’s.
Fast forward to early 2021.
Journalists from De Volkskrant newspaper and investigative journalism platform Follow The Money researched a lead that said the face mask deal might not be as not-for-profit as van Lienden initially claimed.
On May 15, De Volkskrant reported that van Lienden and his partners started a limited company soon after the foundation was launched.
The 100.8 million-euro government order was made through this limited company which was named, Relief Goods Alliance (RGA), a translation of the foundation’s name.
Two weeks later, Follow the Money reported that van Lienden has made at least 9 million euros ($11m) profit from the deal, and his companions about 5 million euros ($6m) each.
“We knew we were onto something and that something peculiar was happening,” Follow The Money journalist Stefan Vermeulen told Al Jazeera. “And then we found proof that they earned more than 20 million euros ($24m). That news was lightning in a bottle.”
The 40 million face masks were never used and remain in storage. The Dutch ministry that made the purchase, VWS, claims this is because there is enough supply. However, in a further twist, there are allegations the masks contain graphene.
The Dutch National Institute for 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 authorities in Canada advised people not to wear masks containing the single, thin layer of graphite.
Anger and politics
The scandal caused a huge uproar and van Lienden, the most well-known of the three, has faced a ferocious media backlash.
Van Lienden refused Al Jazeera’s request for comment for this article.
Tom Kreling, one of the journalists at De Volkskrant who broke the news, said the situation is twofold.
“He’s hugely famous, which is why he managed to get access to the minister and negotiate about a deal,” Kreling told Al Jazeera.
“He has always said that he does it for nothing and now that it turns out to be false, it attracts a lot of attention.”
But there is also a political aspect to this contentious business transaction.
“Van Lienden is affiliated with the CDA [the Christian Democratic Party]. He co-wrote the election manifesto. The question is how much his political connection contributed,” said Kreling.
The story comes at a turbulent time for the Dutch government, following several serious scandals.
This past weekend, prominent CDA-politician Pieter Omtzigt quit the party after his letter revealing his mistreatment by party members was leaked.
“This adds to the image of the CDA as a party in crisis,” said the University of Groningen’s Dirk Jan Wolffram, professor in the History of Governance and Politics in Modern Times. “Van Lienden’s deal might not be the biggest issue for them, but it gives this hint of: ‘See, those Christian Democrats are doing something fishy again’.”
The party is the country’s fourth-largest since the general elections in March. Attempts to form a new cabinet have all failed.
The CDA was quick to say they were looking into expelling van Lienden, a previously valued party member.
The government’s National Resource Consortium, LCH, claims the face mask deal between RGA and the VWS was not necessary, as the LCH already had enough supply.
Opposing political parties questioned the minister of medical care, Tamara van Ark, who claimed the deal was done legitimately.
Since then, the cabinet has promised an external, independent investigation into the deal.
“In the Netherlands, we were stunned to see that since the start of the pandemic, a huge amount of government money became available,” said Wolffram. “Of course everyone supported this at the time, but people have started questioning this spending recently.”
Van Lienden broke his silence in a recent TV interview.
He apologised for his lack of transparency, but argued it was due to confidentiality. He claimed this construction was required by the government and that they were aware of it.
The board of the CDA is investigating van Lienden’s claim that he informed the party about his commercial activities.
“Van Lienden is the epitome of betrayal of a society in times of crisis, and that’s what bothers Dutch people,” said Farid Azarkan, member of the Dutch House of Representatives and leader of 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 yet another example of “typical Dutch politics”.
“It’s all about cronyism,” Visser tells Al Jazeera. “He should give the money back to the healthcare sector.”
So what will happen with the 9 million euros?
Promising to “adjust his moral compass”, van Lienden suggested investing the sum and use the profits for cancer research.
But so far, two Dutch cancer foundations and the Princess Máxima Center for Paediatric Oncology have said they would refuse to accept any money if they were approached.
They said it belongs to the taxpayers and suggested it should be returned to the Ministry of Healthcare.
“I think it’s great that the foundations say that don’t want the money. It’s dirty money,” Jules van der Weerd, a Dutch citizen who works as a process manager, told Al Jazeera.
“I think plenty of people have made lucrative deals during this pandemic which is understandable, but this deal reeks. It confirms people’s gut feeling that something shady is going on in government.”
Azarkan proposed two motions against van Lienden this week.
“We’re giving him two options,” Azarkan told Al Jazeera. “Either he returns the money, or we’ll do our utter best to get it back. This is taxpayers’ money.”
The motions will be discussed on Tuesday.
First published on: Al Jazeera