Questions have been raised about the alleged abuse of taxpayer money by a Government-backed chief executive officer at Community Improvement Services Ltd (CISL), a special-purpose State corporation based in Brechin Castle, Couva.
Sunday Express investigations into governance issues at the fully funded State corporation found a slew of concerns, chief among them the initial failure of the new chief executive officer, Ramchand Rampersad, to provide a copy of his contract to the relevant managers and a $2,500-a-month claim for life insurance for which he was not entitled and for which he was paid.
Rampersad, who insiders report, was catapulted straight from the board of directors into the CEO's chair in an acting capacity on the directive of his previous line minister Chandresh Sharma, also breached Ministry of Finance issued guidelines on the permitted price limit of $400,000 and purchased a company vehicle for the substantive CEO in excess of the set limit before he was even confirmed in the job after two recruitment attempts.
He replaced former CEO Larry Lequay in an acting capacity in October 2011, reportedly on the instructions of then Local Government Minister Sharma, who last Wednesday evening denied he wielded such influence or authority.
"No minister could instruct a board," he insisted.
Refuting claims that there was a government push to put Rampersad into the CEO's chair at CISL, Sharma made clear there was a procedure in place for such appointments and that the CEO call was really that of the board of directors. All State boards, including CISL, are appointed by the incumbent administration and, for the most part, comprise party loyalists and/or supporters.
Chairman of the State company tasked with community-based infrastructural work Dr Rai Ragbir last Thursday refused to disclose the process used for Rampersad's overnight transition from board director to acting CEO.
He was also reluctant to say whether he was directed to appoint Rampersad as the company's acting CEO, countering that "there was nothing wrong" if that were the case.
More than one board director said they had no knowledge of the process used to appoint Rampersad as the acting CEO and another, Aaron Achan, said the "directive came from the Ministry based on his qualifications".
Rampersad ducked the question entirely when the Sunday Express contacted him last Wednesday, saying he was heading into a meeting.
He declined our request for a sit-down interview and asked for an e-mailed list of questions instead, with which he was provided last Thursday. Both Rampersad and chairman Ragbir failed to deliver the promised e-mail responses which they assured they would provide by late last Friday. In his initial telephone conversation with this reporter on Thursday, Ragbir got a little testy when asked about the general practice of State boards acceptance for the breaking of official rules, like price limits set for the acquisition of company vehicles for CEOs of State corporations.
Pressed on the issue of his fiduciary duty to safeguard public funds and ensure transparency and accountability in a State-funded and -run corporation, Ragbir conceded that there was "an oversight" in the acquisition of the higher priced vehicle which exceeded the Ministry of Finance issued limit of $400,000, but noted that it had since been "rectified".
He, however, refused to say how it was rectified, countering instead: "I don't have to answer to a reporter. I answer to my minister and I answer to my Prime Minister, thank you very much."
This response was followed by a click on the telephone line.
Rampersad, the then acting CEO, initiated the process to purchase the Toyota Fortuner at a VAT-exclusive price of $441,591.30 in the midst of a recruitment exercise which started in November 2011 to hire a substantive CEO for CISL. Rampersad is said to have pushed through the transaction notwithstanding the protests of several managers at CISL, including former project accountant Heather Alonzo.
The ex-accountant, in e-mailed correspondence sent to Rampersad in January this year and copied to two other CISL financial managers, noted the recent brouhaha in the media over the acquisition of a minister's car (an obvious reference to Vasant Bharath's choice of a Porsche Cayenne SUV as his official vehicle). She attached a copy of the Finance Ministry's issued price guidelines for his information, noting: "I recall that prior to the preparation of the purchase order you said you got confirmation that CEOs are allowed vehicles to either $400,000 or $500,000 plus VAT."
She noted that since "CISL has never earned sufficient funds to cover its expenses and we operate mainly on subvention funds we should ensure that our expenditure fall within the allowed limits for SPSEs (Special Purpose State Enterprises)".
Alonzo, who is numbered among several officials, including two board directors, to have resigned, declined comment when contacted.
The MOF guidelines are clear that the maximum value of a motor vehicle for eligible public sector employees in Rampersad's category should not exceed a VAT-exclusive price of $400,000.
Rampersad, for his part, last Wednesday dismissed questions raised about the Toyota Fortuner, saying it was a "non-issue".
He described it as "an error in the interpretation of the taxes", but failed to provide an explanation when pressed for details.
He said he was not sure whether he was permitted to disclose company information to the press. It was his stock response to most of the questions put to him by the Sunday Express.
According to him, "information could be used in different ways".
Assured that the facts of a matter will always remain constant, Rampersad, who is also chairman of another State-funded corporation, Government Human Resource Services Co Ltd (GHRS), said: "I would prefer to not discuss this over the phone."
He was also reluctant to talk about the role his private company, Perfect World Human Resources and Management Services, played in short-listing prospective candidates for the CEO's job at another State company, National Flour Mills (NFM). He would say only that he was asked to do an evaluation. By whom and at what cost, he refused to say.
His private business was incorporated in January this year, nearly six months after he was made chairman of GHRS.
He also refused, as did his chairman, to comment on the apparent conflict of interest between his position as chairman of the State's human resource company and his private work as the beneficial owner of Perfect World in sifting through job applications and drawing up a short list of candidates for the CEO post at NFM.
Rampersad and his chairman also refused to respond to reports that he authorised the purchase of a more expensive company vehicle, a used Nissan Wingroad from a Bamboo dealership with a familial connection. Rampersad said he was unaware that his nephew is the brother-in-law of the owner of the foreign-used car dealership, Raj Used Parts.
He also refused, in his initial conversation with this reporter, to comment on an expensive IT contract awarded to Digital Connection Ltd and concerns raised about the flawed pre-qualification process used to select the winning bid.
Both Rampersad and his chairman refused to talk about recent resignations by senior staff and board directors.
Two directors, attorney Anuradha Ramdath and fraud examiner Malcolm Reid, submitted their resignations, with immediate effect, on June 25. Human resources manager Ariane Moonsie has also resigned.
People with knowledge of the situation told the Sunday Express that an exit interview was conducted with Moonsie and concerns flagged discussed at a special meeting of the heads of the various sub-committees of the board on June 14. Chairman Ragbir, however, appears to be in the dark about some of the issues raised.
Achan said he had no knowledge of any of the issues raised.
Both Reid and Ramdath declined comment when contacted. Director Cherry Ramsundar also had no knowledge of events and said she had no comment about whether she would be concerned about possible abuse of taxpayer money.
Fr Ashley Mungal said he had no knowledge but now that he was hearing about it, he planned to raised it with the board. Edison Hoolasie also said he had no knowledge, and Ramchan Seepersad was not immediately available for comment.
Another director, Asha Sooknanan, said there was board approval for Rampersad's appointment as the substantive CEO. She said to the best of her knowledge the issue of the CEO's car never came to the board nor did she approve purchase of the vehicle. She confirmed that governance issues were raised but not at an official level. She declined further comment.
New Local Government Minister Surujrattan Rambachan said he was aware of the salary overpayment related to the life insurance claim, but his understanding was that the money has since been paid back. As to the rest, Minister Rambachan said he would have to look into it.
Rampersad was appointed substantive CEO on February 13 this year.