More than 2,000 farmers of the Agricultural Society of T&T (ASTT) have been caught in the middle of a feud between the president and chairman Dhano Sookoo and executive members. According to ASTT vice-president Jenson Alexander, the ASTT had $4 million in membership funds in 2008, but that figure is now $40,000 as of 2011. The ASTT has been plagued by accusations of financial impropriety, misconduct in public office, disregard for constitutional guidelines, allegations of administrative misguidance and nepotism. On December 21, 2011, about 50 farmers came together at a meeting at Rienzi Complex, Couva, to find out the issues which led to the existing impasse between Sookoo and the ASTT executive members, six of whom have been suspended since October 3, 2011. ASTT president Sookoo was invited, but did not attend the three-hour long meeting. The ASTT is the only state body appointed by its members and not by Government. The ASTT’s mandate is to lobby for farmers’ concerns, to assist in creating policies and working with other agriculture stakeholders for farmers’ benefit.
Trouble in ASTT
Alister Glean, manager of institutional support at the T&T Agri-Business Association, was asked to chair the meeting as an independent body. All six suspended members—Roger Lashley, Mahadeo Rambharose, John Ribeiro, Ramdeo Boondoo, Khrisendath Sooknanan and Jenson Alexander—were present. However, Alexander and Boondoo, along with the ASTT secretary, Gaynell Seenath, sat at the head table to answer questions from the floor. The meeting revealed that the feud began shortly after the ASTT held its annual general meeting (AGM) in January 23, 2011, when 26 new board members were elected. The board comprises different farming organisations. At the meeting, Alexander said that Sookoo was “displeased” with whom the membership had elected to serve on the board. Boondoo, one of the six suspended board members, supported Alexander in this allegation.
Alexander explained that following the AGM, the president began “behaving inappropriately” —she frequently walked out of subsequent meetings. He told farmers that Sookoo did not want to work with certain members of the board and, as a consequence, was not supportive at board meetings, which were held twice monthly. At the beginning of 2011, the board took a decision to completely stop paying Sookoo an extra monthly allowance of $15,000, citing that the ASTT funds could not sustain such payments, which Sookoo received for two years. In an interview with the Business Guardian on December 30, 2011, Sookoo confirmed that the $15,000 extra allowance was agreed on when Karen Tesheira was minister of finance in the previous administration. Alexander said the president tried to justify the extra allowance, stating that it was for extra duties working in the field in collaboration with the Estate Management and Business Development Company Ltd (EMBD) on the agriculture access roads programme. The president, who was also on the EMBD board, eventually withdrew from the programme. The new board felt that as a consequence, the extra allowance was no longer justified. Alexander said that Sookoo was still receiving the allowance at the time she withdrew from the programme.
Alexander explained to the attentive farmers that they were “misguided” by the president. He proceeded to outline details of alleged “misconduct” by Sookoo. Alexander said that on several occasions, Sookoo illegally appointed board member Elizabeth Mohammed-Ali to act as president in her absence during trips abroad, including Fiji.
Sookoo was invited to attend a sponsored forum on Access to Finance for the Agriculture sector by the United Nations from October 15-24 to Fiji. Asked to comment on this decision, Sookoo said that as president, she can appoint anyone to act. The disharmony among members worsened to the point where Sookoo cancelled board meetings from July to September 2011. Alexander said the last straw that prompted the president to suspend them was their fight to have the public officers receive their backpay for 2008-2010. Without providing an explanation, Alexander said that the president refused to pay the public officers. The minutes of an October 3 special meeting of board members stated that Sookoo told the board she had informed the ASTT secretary Gaynell Seenath and the Edwina Leacock, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Food Production, that no payments will be authorised without relevant approvals and disbursements of funds.
In a September 9 memo, Leacock wrote to the president giving her the requisite approval for payment of arrears of salaries and cost of living allowance (Cola) for ASTT public servants. “Funds have been released to make this payment under Ministry of Finance memorandum dated August 17, 2011,” stated the letter from Leacock to Sookoo. While the letter did not give a figure for salary arrears and payment of Cola, secretary Seenath, in two separate payment vouchers, indicated that the total was $90,069.95. Despite this official approval from Leacock, Alexander said the president still refused to pay. In a September 23 board meeting chaired by board member Krishna Balgobin, a motion was passed and agreed by all members present to release the funds for public officers. Sookoo was at the time in Fiji. When the president learnt about the disbursement of funds to public officers, Alexander said Sookoo accused some board members of stealing ASTT funds, on the grounds that she did not officially sanction that the money be paid to the officers, and proceeded to suspend six board members.
Alexander said she accused them of having defrauded the ASTT accounts. She also withdrew their board remuneration and disband them from all ASTT activities. The vice-president gets $7,850 and other board members receive $3,700 a month.
Sookoo’s move to suspend members created more disarray and confusion among ASTT membership.
Alexander said the president called for an interim election because she said she could not work with the current executive. The election was scheduled for July 27, 2011. In a letter to Sookoo dated July 11, 2011, Leacock said: “The ASTT’s elections are governed solely by the Agricultural Society Act, Chapter 63:01. The act clearly stipulates that the committee must be elected at the annual general meeting in January of each year. Therefore, your next elections are to be held in January 2011. Any elections you now conduct will be void because it will ultra vires the act.” Suspended members legally challenged of the election by filing an injunction to stop it. The court matter was heard on November 21. The judgment would be delivered on January 9, 2012. On the day of the scheduled election, Alexander said Sookoo moved a motion to suspend them since she could not legally continue with the election process.
He said the suspended six members were trying to follow the appropriate procedures and guidelines regarding the payment of money owed and the election. One of the farmers at the Rienzi Complex meeting asked for the suspension process to be clarified. Alexander explained that the motion—which was not signed by members—was given to the secretary after the suspension letters were written. In addition, he noted that the suspension letters were issued before the motion went to the committee of management for approval, and that the president, therefore, acted outside the constitution governing the ASTT. The president has since written memos, one dated October 14, 2011, to stop monthly remuneration to suspended members. “Again, she did not follow the requisite guidelines,” said Alexander said in an interview with the Business Guardian on December 27. The suspended members filed another injunction questioning the legality of the move against them. That court matter would be heard on January 20.
Alleged misappropriation of funds
The president had asked the secretary to pay 25 per cent of her legal fees using ASTT’s funds, since Leacock had informed the ASTT secretary that the Government would not cover anyone’s legal fees. Sookoo’s combined legal fees were $253,000. The secretary said she was uncomfortable carrying out such an order and sought guidance from Leacock. The secretary told the Business Guardian she was informed by Leacock that if the president was using ASTT funds to pay legal fees, Sookoo would have to get members’ approval. The secretary told farmers at Rienzi Complex that no such approval was sought. At the Rienzi Complex meeting, which the Business Guardian covered, the secretary told farmers she was pressured into co-signing the first cheque for $63,500. The secretary said she sought further advice from ASTT members and then placed a hold on the cheque. The Business Guardian understands that when the president learnt the secretary placed a hold on the cheque, she held a meeting to remove the other three signatories—John Ribeiro, Seenath and Alexander—and replaced them with the acting secretary Josieann Bernard. Subsequently, a second cheque was issued for the same amount, but it was not cashed because the bank did recognise the signatures.
There were six other cheques which were signed by Sookoo and acting secretary Bernard:
• $2,216.34, October 10, 2011
• $429, October 10, 2011
• $1,745.09, October 10, 2011
• $2,400, October 10, 2011
• $1,972.65, October 12, 2011
• $611, October 6, 2011
None of these six cheques were honoured by the bank. Seenath said that since the president was unsuccessful in changing the signatories, Sookoo came at her again and was again “pressured” into signing a third cheque for $63,500. Alexander explained that the president “misguided” the members into believing that the suspended group took the ASTT to court, so she could have the members approve the funds for her legal bill. But he said such approval required all board members’ authorisation, including suspended members. Alexander said only Sookoo and the acting secretary were taken to court, not the entire organisation.
Dining and travelling expenses
This followed a previous function for farmers and their spouses held at Macoya Wholesale Market on December 18, where an estimated $100,000 was spent. During the meeting held at Rienzi Complex, former acting president Elizabeth Mohammed-Ali said that on December 20, more than $16,000 was spent at Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant for those who organised previous events. Mohammed-Ali said neither the executive board or farmers had approved or were privy to those expenditures. According to the guidelines governing ASTT, the secretary at the meeting said the president was only authorised to spend $5,000, and any sum above that would have required official approval.
Regarding Sookoo’s Fiji trip, it was stated in the minutes for the October 5 meeting that all of Sookoo’s daily spending allowance, travel and accommodation would be taken care of by the United Nations.
Despite this, Mohammed-Ali said the president still requested the secretary to grant her $9,951.00 to cover her daily expenses. Mohammed-Ali also raised questions about a missing new HP laptop bought for the sole purpose of ASTT business. Mohammed-Ali said members have said the laptop has not been seen since its purchase. The secretary said she has informed permanent secretary Leacock about the impasse, and threats Sookoo made about her job.
The secretary said that Leacock advised that all information should be documented and that the membership holds the power to take action. The Business Guardian made several attempts to contact Leacock, but an assistant said each time that she was in meetings and was unavailable.
At the end of the meeting at Rienzi Complex, the farmers were displeased and concerned about the internal wrangling. After much probing and questioning by the concerned farmers, they learnt that their funds have been reduced from $4 million to $40,000. In an attempt to bring the situation under control, the worried farmers moved several motions:
• That no more money be given to the president until she declares and explains existing financial expenditure.
• Audited financial statements be made available to all financial members before any election is called.
ASTT election is scheduled for January 22.
• For an immediate recall of the nomination process and a neutral committee be formed to oversee all processes, where no family or friends be included. All posts be made vacant.
• A call of reconciliation was made to have all members and parties involved, including the president, to meet and discuss all issues openly.
ASTT President’s monetary compensation:
$8,750, board fees
$2,400, fees for being on the Ministry of Transport board (she left eight months ago)
$3,675, board fees at EMBD
$15,000, special allowance for agricultural access roads programme
An estimated $5,000, cost of Toyota SUV per month (vehicle is used by all members; money is assigned for vehicle maintenance)
$5,000, two Blackberry phones (Sookoo said the first was damaged and she’s now using the second)
Food Production Minister Vasant Bharath said he is aware of the impasse within the Agriculture Society of T&T.
Describing it as an internal wrangling, Bharath said the ministry has taken a hands-off approach as the ASTT is governed by its own rules and guidelines. “The ministry has chosen not to get involve until the situation starts to affect the sector. “ASTT election is soon (January) and I am hoping that the democratic process prevail and the members take the opportunity to elect who they wish to govern them.” Asked if he ever told the president, Dhano Sookoo, to call an early election and get rid of the present members, Bharath denied this. “This is an unfounded claim. I have no authority to issue such a directive. This is the first I am hearing about this,” Bharath said.