Monday, January 22, 2018

Sweet Caroni

Despite the closure of its operations in 2003, former sugar producer Caroni (1975) Ltd continued to be a sweet spot for senior employees. After years of rumours of wrongdoing at the company, in October 2013, the company came close to being ordered to pay $11 million to a senior executive in an allegedly fabricated lawsuit the board of directors did not know about. The board moved swiftly to fire the executive for reasons relating to the lawsuit and other reasons, but that action was derailed. Instead, in November 2013 the executive and his $40,000 monthly compensation package were shifted to the government’s newly created Caroni Green Initiative.

Since November 2013, in reference to a series of documents now in the public domain, the All Trinidad General Workers Trade Union placed Caroni Green under watch as another hotspot for misdealing under the People’s Partnership Government. A current audit into Caroni Green will provide some answers.

But before that, the PM and AG, and Ministers Larry Howai, Devant Maharaj and Jairam Seemungal must explain that decision of the Jerry Hospedales-led Caroni (1975) Ltd board of directors to transfer the senior executive to Caroni Green instead of firing him as the board intended. The December 2011 lawsuit filed by the senior executive was not disclosed to the board, even as the executive continued to work with the board and advise it on ongoing litigation. When the lawsuit was discovered in October 2013 just before a default judgment was entered against the company, the AG and the board moved to protect Caroni (1975) Ltd. But, in an about-turn, and despite grounds for immediate dismissal and an audit of Caroni’s activities between 2004 and 2013, the Caroni board transferred the senior executive to Caroni Green and closed the matter.

Still, the claims upon Caroni (1975) Ltd did not stop. With the $11 million lawsuit withdrawn and dismissal action by Caroni derailed, the senior executive boldly claimed and was approved by Cabinet in March 2014 for a $150,000 severance package on account of his “transfer” to Caroni Green. This was in addition to a near $1million package already paid by Caroni in 2008 under the company’s enhanced VSEP arrangements. A legal opinion obtained by Caroni’s board did not support the Cabinet agreement to pay the severance. Prior to that new severance claim, Caroni recovered $97,000 for a monthly housing allowance wrongly claimed by the executive between 2004 and 2007 while he occupied a company bungalow. The company is still trying to recover $60,000 for telephone expenses also wrongly paid for a residential line assigned to a company department but recently found to be have been in use at the executive’s residence.

Notwithstanding the ongoing allegations and audits, Cabinet continues to place more money, lands, assets, and buildings and office facilities under Caroni Green and the ex-Caroni senior executive. The Prime Minister, AG, and Minister of Finance cannot be serious given the allegations made by the All Trinidad General Workers Trade Union. The union has demanded that the Prime Minister “immediately put a stop to the Caroni Green Initiative Project until a proper investigation is completed, all allegations of impropriety, nepotism and corruption is checked and the initiative is working to the benefit of the ex-Caroni worker”. The abandoned $11 million lawsuit could be mired in fraud and is a good starting point for a full investigation into both Caroni (1975) Ltd and Caroni Green. The country must watch these entities closely as evidence of much sweetness at Caroni continues to be revealed.

(For my wife, Camille)

Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer

and a university lecturer