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Cabinet fires chairman of school-feeding programme

Published: 
Monday, August 15, 2011
Dawn Annamunthodo

The chairman of the National Schools Dietary Services Ltd (NSDSL)—Dawn Annamunthodo—has been fired. Annamunthodo’s appointment was revoked with immediate effect on August 4. The decision to terminate her appointment was taken by Cabinet, just six months after she was appointed to head the school-feeding programme. The termination followed allegations of a $50,000-plus VIP security bill and attempts to become a signatory on the company’s account, according to documents obtained by Sunday Guardian. Annamunthodo’s dismissal follows the resignation of two of the NSDSL’s board directors—Rev Subesh Ramjattan and Vandanna Prajapat. The board wrote to Minister of Education Dr Tim Goopeesingh on May 10, expressing concerns about the matter involving Annamunthodo. Copies of the three-page correspondence were also sent to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and to permanent secretaries in the Ministries of Education and Finance—Maurice Suite and Marlene Juman respectively.

Death threats lead to $50,000-plus security bill
It was following claims of death threats on her life, Annamunthodo requested that she be given a VIP security detail to protect her from harm.
The board agreed to the request for a period of two weeks, commencing March 18.
• Security firm SESL Ltd was approached to provide the VIP escort service from Monday to Friday at a daily rate of $1,350 for 12 hours, inclusive of a SUV vehicle.
• The VIP security detail agreement comprised one unmarked SUV, one certified defensive driver and an armed bodyguard.
• The former chairman caused eyebrows to raise when she requested additional security services for weekends. A night security officer was also retained. The security bill amounted to $50,650 for the period March 19 to April 5.

Ingrid Herrera, the NSDSL’s chief executive officer, subsequently queried the increase in the security rates quoted on an invoice submitted by the security firm. Responding to the query, the firm’s executive chairman Derek Smith explained that the original rates for security service had not changed. Smith said the firm and NSDSL had initially agreed for VIP escort from Monday to Friday. However, Smith said upon further review of her schedules, Annamunthodo requested security on Saturdays and Sundays. Smith noted while the daily rate applies for Saturdays, an addition double rate was calculated for Sundays and public holidays totalling $2,700 plus VAT.

Legal advice frowned on change in banking policy
Annamunthodo also attempted to become a signatory on the company’s Republic Bank Ltd account held at Ellerslie Plaza, Maraval. Bank records list Herrera as the only signatory on the account. At a special emergency board meeting held on May 3, Annamunthodo—according to board minutes—suggested a change in the banking policy implementing two signatories to the company’s account. While it was noted that the previous board moved to implement the relevant policies if such a change was needed, a decision was taken by the new board to refer the matter to the Audit Committee, pending a recommendation at the next board meeting. Documents obtained by Sunday Guardian showed that legal advice was sought by the company’s interim corporate secretary, attorney Ronnie Bissessar. Bissessar noted that Annamunthodo was a non-executive chairman and it would be improper for her or any other board member to make representations and be appointed as co-signatories of the company’s account.
He also stated that the proposal for change of the banking policy was in contrast of the company’s by -laws and inconsistent with the general principle that the CEO is the chief accounting officer of the company. A letter from Herrera to Annamunthodo stated that the former chairman had visited the bank, telling them of a board decision taken to change the banking policy. The bank had requested copies of the new directorship of NSDSL and a signed copy of the special resolution for the new banking policy to be implemented from Annamunthodo. They never received the documents. The bank later contacted Herrera, requesting the relevant documentation to make the necessary changes to the account.

Dumas: Take a page from President Obama
Former head of the T&T Public Service, Reginald Dumas, said there was need for a proper criteria to be implemented to avoid such a recurrence. Dumas said the problem T&T faces was that when a government was elected, people were chosen for positions based on political affiliation rather than qualifications. “We have chosen people over the years on the basis of political affiliation; people who have worked for a political party or friendly with a political party. We do not look at qualifications and criteria, so over the years we have ended up with a lot of square pegs in round holes. “I think what is needed is for us to take a page from US President Barrack Obama and implement a questionnaire when positions are being filled. The questionnaire must state whether you are related to a government official and your expertise,” Dumas said.

Annamunthodo: These questions are state business

Contacted for comment, Annamunthodo questioned how the Sunday Guardian obtained the documents.
“How did you get hold of those documents? Those are state documents.” Asked whether security services were hired on weekends and if the board approved this, Annamunthodo replied: “These questions are state business. I will call you back. I have to answer to your questions, I would call back in the next two hours.” However, when Annamunthodo returned the call she asked for the questions to be e-mailed to give a written response at a later date.

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