One week after a Cabinet sub-committee’s report into the operations of the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) claimed trade unions representing employees were engaged in the supply of goods and services to the organisation, confirmation has come from the head of the Public Services Association (PSA) that his wife owns an engineering firm which has been awarded contracts by WASA in the past.
PSA president Watson Duke said Blackstone Engineering Technologies Limited, which is owned by his wife, Kimberly and others, was owed outstanding monies by WASA. The company is contracted to repair and install pipelines.
Duke, however, refused to disclose the amount owed. While Minister of Public Utilities Marvin Gonzales said he was unable to say how much the company was owed at this time, he added, "to my understanding, they have received millions from WASA over the years and it is a situation of a serious conflict of interest. That should concern the citizens." Gonzales said these payments were made under the People's Partnership regime. Gonzales said WASA will pay Blackstone Engineering Technologies Limited once the contracts are legitimate.
Defending the work done by the company which was established in 2005/2006, Duke claimed the company had not received any contracts in the last six years.
At a media briefing at the PSA’s Head Office, Abercrombie Street, Port-of-Spain, yesterday, Duke distanced himself from his wife’s company. “Blackstone Engineering Technologies Limited has been providing services in this country since 2006…2005 thereabouts. That is a company mined by my wife and whosoever she has in that company. I have no part of that company. I have never been part of the company at all.
“Wheresoever the company gets work, it does its work. I have no bones about that. And WASA owe we money, he (Gonzales) didn’t tell you that? They owe we money how much years now, he is not saying that.”
Duke argued, “It is a legitimate company just like the company of your other friends.”
Claiming he had to live here too, Duke said, “We pay our taxes and we tender for all contracts as anybody else but since the PNM came inside, we have not gotten one single contract. It’s been six years now but we still surviving. We have not gotten one contract and they owe us money six years now.”
He challenged Gonzales to make public the figure owed to his wife “who was not working anywhere.”
Contacted later by the Sunday Guardian to ascertain exactly how much money was owed to his wife, Duke said, “We won’t want to divulge that. They owe us monies.”
He alleged it was “political spite” that had led to WASA not settling the outstanding debts.
Asked several times to speak with his wife or for a contact number for her, Duke said, “She wouldn’t say that. She would not be involved in that. I am the media man, I could talk straight.”
Questioned why his wife was not able to speak about a company which she owns, Duke said, “All she will say is that she owns the company, that’s all. She not going any further than that.”
Asked who are the directors in the company, he said, “My wife will decide that, that is her business. It is not anybody on my family side. She has her own business.”
At the press conference, Duke labelled Gonzales a “nasty man” for advising reporters to seek clarification from him regarding some of the contents in the report.
The 135-page report found, “top-heavy management of WASA is ineffective and the contents of freely negotiated Collective Agreements reveal a philosophy of securing industrial peace by ceding control of WASA to the unions, to the point the unions have now effectively subsumed many management responsibilities."
It also claimed, "There exists compelling evidence as well that the unions have become suppliers of goods and services to the authority whilst it seems that management turns a blind eye to this reality."
The report claimed the unions had been encouraging members not to cooperate with internal audits and investigations into wrongdoing at WASA.
The sub-committee which was chaired by Gonzales presented the report to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley in December.
NUGFW starts its own investigations into claims
In light of the serious allegations contained in the report, President general of the National Union of Government and Federated Workers (NUGFW) James Lambert said his union had begun its own investigations into the claims.
The NUGFW represents approximately 1,500 daily-rated workers at WASA and Lambert said, “We have had our section officers at WASA begin investigations into this aspect.”
WASA workers are also represented by the Public Services Association (PSA) and the Estate Police Association (EPA).
The unions were also accused in the report of encouraging their members not to cooperate with internal audits into legitimate investigations of internal wrongdoing, as well as refusing to sign any charter to improve accountability and good corporate governance within WASA.
The report labelled WASA’s overall financial performance as poor with chronic deficits being a regular feature.
The committee wrote, "This is a breeding ground for corruption and there is concern that there is a culture of corruption in the procurement of services by the authority."
The report found successive management teams had proven powerless to the unions' encroachment on the authority's rights to manage, direct and own its operational affairs.
It stated, “Part of the problem inside of WASA is that management accountability has been sacrificed for political patronage."
Responding briefly to the allegations being levelled against the trade union movement inside WASA, general secretary of the National Trade Union Centre (NATUC) Michael Annisette raised concerns as he questioned, “Where is the social dialogue that needs to take place with partner agencies?”
He said the committee had completed its investigations into WASA but had somehow managed not to include the unions.
Responding to the narrative that the unions were in charge at WASA, Annisette added, “There is a Board there. If the Board allows the unions to perform the functions of the management and run a company, you should get rid of the Board.”
Annisette said there are no bad workers, but bad policies and poor managers.
President of the Estate Police Association (EPA) Deryck Richardson said they do not provide any goods or services whatsoever to WASA.
The collective agreements with the three unions expired in 2013.
Gonzales: We have empirical evidence
Gonzales said, "Everything we (committee) have arrived at can be supported by empirical evidence because we are very careful when this report makes its way into the public domain, we must be prepared to defend everything.
“So it was not an attempt to tarnish anyone. It was not an attempt to go after anyone. It was an attempt to reorganise WASA but the country must know the state of affairs of the organisation."
Of the three unions, Gonzales could not say which had benefited the most from WASA.
"I haven't done that deep assessment as to who benefited the most because I would have to do some calculations."
Gonzales added, "All these bad practices over the years ought to be reversed. If you have strong managers these things will not happen. Strong management will foster a culture of transparency, decency and good corporate governance.
"It is in our collective interest we work together in solving the problems as difficult as they might be. This country is suffering for water and we have been doing so for the longest while. If we don't fix this problem it is going to come with a political price."
He promised to deal with all wrongdoing in WASA head-on as he vowed, “I am about tackling these problems if that is what it takes to get water flowing in people's taps."