Louis Engelman – After two years, the Utrecht municipal council has still not obtained clarity about the suspicion of corruption by officials in the sale of land at the Rachmaninoffplantsoen in the Welgelegen district.
The Public Prosecution Service opened an investigation at the beginning of 2022 – after a report by the Utrecht Tree Foundation – but this has not yet been completed. The case is currently with the Tax Intelligence and Investigation Service (FIOD).
The question of whether criminal offenses were committed at the time has still not been answered and remains like a dark cloud hanging over the city council.
On January 26, 2022, chairman Kees van Oosten of the Tree Foundation turned to the Public Prosecution Service with a report of ‘possible bribery at the municipality of Utrecht’.
He did this after revelations were made on this site in July 2021 about the preliminary phase of ‘Weltevreden’, a 70-meter-high apartment building for 140 apartments in the Rachmaninoffplantsoen. The Tree Foundation considered itself involved in the plan because its realization would require significant felling in the adjacent Hommelbos.
Resident groups in Welgelegen were dismayed by the news, because until then there had only been consultation with the municipality about the design of the parking lot on site. And it is precisely there that, according to the ‘intent document’ approved by the council, it would be examined whether there was room for the apartment building.
The sale of part of the parking lot was central to the unrest that followed, according to research by Nieuws030. During that transaction in 2018, decisions were made that raised numerous questions.
Representative Irene Sinteur of the ‘Buurt Welgelegen Interest Consultation’ said she was ‘astonished and has a strong feeling of having been misled by the municipality’. Then SP councilor Tim Schipper spoke of ‘a smell of trickery and deceit’.
The issue originated on October 2, 2018. At that time, the municipality of Utrecht sold part of the parking lot at the Rachmaninoffplantsoen for 311,868 euros to a project developer. This concerned the company Rachmaninoffhuis bv, part of private equity investor Egeria Real Estate Development, once founded by the Brenninkmeijer family of C&A.
The official purchase deed, which was signed by notary Houthoff in Rotterdam four months later on February 15, 2019, expressly stated that the plot must continue to have the ‘parking’ function.
However, our investigation showed that the site had long since been sold privately. Namely on October 3, one day after the sale by Utrecht. This time to Bouwinvest Dutch Institutional Residential Fund NV. But for a much higher price: 1,280,917 euros, almost a million more than Utrecht had received. The official deed of sale was signed on July 3, 2019.
The 3e October 2018 seems crucial in this matter. Because then a much larger transaction was concluded between both companies at the notary Houthoff. This involved the sale of the former ROVU office building, which had been converted into the ‘Rachmaninoff’ apartment block. Developer Rachmaninoffhuis bv then sold this complex to Bouwinvest for more than 18 million euros.
When we asked the investor why almost a million euros more had been paid for the parking space, Bouwinvest’s spokesperson referred to that transaction. She stated that ‘an additional amount was withheld from the purchase price to ensure that the parking lot would be delivered’. According to her, this explained the higher purchase price. “It therefore concerned a withheld payment for the whole and has no direct relationship with the value of the parking lot,” said Bouwinvest’s spokeswoman.
But strangely enough, there appeared to be no such reservation in the deeds of sale drawn up by the notary. According to the notary, Bouwinvest had paid the entire purchase price down to the last euro.
This lack of clarity was reason for us to ask the parties involved to provide proof of the overdue payment. With such a large amount, at least a declaration of debt would have been put on paper. And it would also immediately remove all suspicion of irregularities.
The answer was short: no. The companies were not prepared to do this. And later – when councilor Verschuure asked for this several times – the response remained negative.
For chairman Van Oosten of the Tree Foundation, this secrecy was precisely the reason to have the Public Prosecution Service investigate whether criminal offenses had been committed. According to him, this not only concerned the much higher purchase price of the parking lot, but also the unexpected presentation of the idea to build an apartment building on that site. He expressed a suspicion of ‘possible bribery at the municipality of Utrecht’.
The Central Netherlands District of the Public Prosecution Service decided two years ago not to handle the report itself, but to pass it on to the Functional Public Prosecutor’s Office. In an explanation, the Public Prosecution Service explained that within the ‘Triangle Consultation’ there is a relationship between the police, the Public Prosecution Service and the mayor of Utrecht. From the point of view of objectivity, it was therefore decided to avoid any appearance of bias.
In the meantime, Utrecht continued with the procedure surrounding the intention document. In information meetings, the opinions of Welgelegen residents were gauged about the construction of the flat. It was striking how strongly there was pressure to agree to the plan.
The subject was also critically discussed several times in committee meetings and in the council. This raised the question whether Utrecht had not received far too little money for the land, which was resold a day later for almost a million more.
When asked, the municipal project leader informed us that this was not the case. He stated that the city was no longer formally a party to the resale. Aldermen Verschuure (D66) and Diepeveen (GroenLinks) supported this view. They advised against motions asking for immediate termination of the project, after which they were voted in favor by a majority.
Both councilors had previously concluded that there could be no question of a suspicious transaction. And a connection with the proposed construction of the residential apartment was, they stated, in fact impossible. They based this on the fact that, according to them, the municipal council had never discussed the construction of an apartment block with the initiators before May 2019. “The purchase agreement was concluded in 2018, while discussions about the new initiative only took place in 2019,” the councilors said.
Partly for this reason, they called the companies’ statement that there was arrears of payment ‘not implausible’.
But in April 2022 the bomb exploded. After a WOO request from our editors, a memo turned up in the municipal archives. This showed that SP councilor Paulus Jansen had already discussed a ‘second construction phase’ in the Rachmaninoff Park with Egeria in June 2017. Jansen later denied that agreements had been made.
The college was deeply disturbed. In a letter to the council, the councilors apologized for the previous incorrect information and said they regretted this. “I’m really fed up with this,” Verschuure said when asked.
In response to the memo, the council decided to conduct an additional investigation into the events. The accounting firm KPMG was hired for this purpose for a fee of one hundred thousand euros.
In October 2022, the accounting firm concluded that ‘the municipality had not raised any expectations or made any commitments’ to market parties for the construction development on the parking lot at the Rachmaninoff Park. KPMG also stated that the surfaced memo had not been deliberately withheld from the council.
Yet the atmosphere on December 8, 2022 in the Land Affairs Committee meeting was not very cheerful. The two aldermen Diepeveen and Verschuure had since left the field after the elections and alderman Eelco Eerenberg was given the matter on his plate. He was clearly not happy about that.
The memo had taken the council completely by surprise, he said. ‘As a result, the council was misinformed. Are we ashamed of that? “Yes,” said Eerenberg. He called the situation ‘super bad on all levels’. ‘This is extremely painful. The council understands that like no other.’
In fact, the matter was settled. The tower block would no longer be built. The municipal council swept the intention document for the flat off the table at the subsequent municipal meeting two weeks later. It was decided, in consultation with the residents’ organizations in the neighborhood, to look at what housing development is possible in Welgelegen and at what location.
All that remains of the matter is the report of suspicion of official corruption. An investigation that has now taken two years. To put some pressure behind it, the Tree Foundation also turned to the court to persuade the Public Prosecution Service to investigate criminal offenses. But until now there has been silence on both sides.
This prolonged radio silence raises the question of how much concern b. and W. van Utrecht are concerned about the situation. After all, suspicion still hangs over the municipal civil servants, which is harmful to Utrecht’s reputation.
That is why we asked councilors Eerenberg and mayor Dijksma what they think about this and whether they now have more information about the progress of the investigation.
The response was short and sweet:
The municipality has not been formally informed that a (criminal) investigation is underway. The municipality has only heard that a report has been filed. A declaration must be assessed by the competent authorities. It is up to the judiciary to determine whether further investigation is necessary and as a municipality we will not make any further statements about this.