...ASTT president: Ploy to remove me from office
In the face of a call for the Fraud Squad to probe allegations of financial impropriety against her, Dhano Sookoo, president of the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago (ASTT), yesterday asserted that her actions are above board.
Some members of the ASTT wrote to the Fraud Squad on September 6, 2013, calling for an investigation into financial impropriety against Sookoo with respect to payments for duty allowances and special allowances to herself, which they claimed were in breach of policy.
According to the letter, which was obtained by the Express, Sookoo claimed and received payments for duty allowances and special allowances for the months of February, March, April, May and June, to the amount of $32,500 to $6,500 per month.
“It must be noted that at no time the Committee of Management approved any such allowances. Furthermore on January 30, 2013, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Ministry of Food Production and the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago,” stated the letter.
It added that Articles 20:1, 20:2, and 20:3 clearly explains that any allowance and payment of same must be authorised by the Minister of Food Production.
The letter added that ASTT was advised and warned on many occasions on the co-mingling of funds and called on the Fraud Squad to probe the issue.
The Express understands the Fraud Squad has requested further information from those who lodged the complaint against Sookoo.
Speaking to the Express by phone yesterday, Sookoo said she had no knowledge of the letter to the Fraud Squad and was not contacted by any law enforcement on the matter.
“What I do know is that when I was out of the country, the minister issued a letter to the vice-president (Lall Bhagaloo), his colleague from the Maha Sabha, for him to act as president and he issued over $200,000 in cheques from the society, which is a breach,” said Sookoo.
She said she was alerted of this while attending a UN meeting in Grenada.
“Such action is not acceptable. That was fraudulent. The minister had no authority to issue such a letter,” said Sookoo.
She said before leaving the country, the board agreed that board member Mohammed Hallim would act as president.
Sookoo said on her return she wrote to Maharaj on the issue, as hundreds of thousands of dollars were released under Bhagaloo’s acting presidency of ASTT.
Questioned specifically on the allegations as they relate to special and duty allowances paid to herself, Sookoo said the board agreed to this.
She stressed this money was not paid out of the State subventions, but from the society’s private funds.
Sookoo pointed out that ASTT elections were due in January and the allegations are a ploy to remove her from office.
“From the time Devant Maharaj take up office, he has had a problem with me, and the vice-president (Bhagaloo) is his friend and colleague,” Sookoo said.
She said the ASTT was seeking a legal opinion on Maharaj’s intervention to give Bhagaloo authority to act as ASTT president.
“The minister has no authority to intervene in the operation of the society. We are guided by an act of Parliament,” she said.
Sookoo added that every month she sends Maharaj copies of the minutes of ASTT, board meetings in keeping with the organisation’s transparent and accountable management.
According to a document obtained by the Express, on June 14, 2013, permanent secretary of the Food Production Ministry Myrna Thompson wrote to Sookoo, stating that based on an audit by the ministry into financial affairs of ASTT for the period October 2012 to May 2013, it was found that there were several breaches.
“These breaches are self-explanatory. In particular with respect to the payment of a duty allowance in the sum of $6,500 to the president. Please note that under Clause 20:1 the Committee of Management of the ASTT is required to obtain prior approval from the minister for the payment of such an allowance. Unless that approval has been obtained, no such payment can be made,” stated the letter.
Questioned on this letter, Sookoo said she has a paper trail to prove that she responded to the permanent secretary’s letter.
She said requested an urgent meeting with the permanent secretary and in that meeting she “clearly indicated” there was no breach and the special allowances paid were from ASTT’s private account and not from the account where State monies were deposited.
Said Sookoo, “The vice-president himself indicated that he has instructions from the minister to get members to vote against me and have me removed from my position, and members of my board have stood up and said that will not happen.”
She stressed that she performs her duties as enshrined in the act.
“I do not know what is the minister’s agenda,” said Sookoo, adding that she has always been cooperative in working with Maharaj.
She said further that she has a pile of letters—which show she has written to Maharaj since July requesting a meeting with him and received no response to date.
Sookoo added that she has also written Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on the matter.