A bitter row has broken out between Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj and Dhano Sookoo, president of the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago (ASTT).
Maharaj has called on National Security Minister Gary Griffith to expedite the investigation into alleged financial impropriety against Sookoo.
Sookoo, in turn claims the minister has a personal vendetta against her and has demanded he stay out of ASTT’s business.
“I have called upon my colleague Gary Griffith to ensure that this investigation is expedited as we are talking about State funds in the excess of millions. I have also asked the ministry to release funds only for the payments of salaries,” Maharaj told the Express in a telephone interview yesterday.
Maharaj said he was not surprised ASTT members have written to the Fraud Squad asking for a probe, as there has been a “litany of complaints” made against Sookoo.
He said he found it strange when Sookoo left the country recently and took a decision to appoint a regular board member to act as president, when there was a vice-president in place.
Maharaj said he requested the ministry’s legal officer to provide advice on the matter.
The legal advice stated that the vice-president should act in the president’s absence.
Maharaj said he took the initiative to ensure that ASTT vice-president Lall Bhagaloo act as vice-president and he (Bhagaloo) proceeded to pay salaries to persons who had not been paid by ASTT.
“When I came to the ministry, I met Miss Sookoo there and a litany of allegations against her which in large part seem to be corroborated by the ministry’s own internal audit team and the Ministry of Finance internal audit team,” said Maharaj.
He said although State funds were released to the ASTT annually, audit reports showed payments to National Insurance Scheme (NIS) and health surcharges were still pending.
“She (Sookoo) has to account, and the unfortunate thing is I have accounting officers and auditing officers almost on a weekly basis going to the society because of the level of these complaints. People are saying money is missing, money is being spent without proper fiscal management,” said Maharaj.
“I am told she (Sookoo) was paying herself a clothing allowance. No other board member I know of does this or travels without authorisation from the minister,” said Maharaj.
Maharaj added that a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed with the ASTT—which Sookoo breached within a short time.
He noted that Sookoo started her tenure at ASTT with a $300 stipend, which escalated to over $20,000 monthly.
The Finance Ministry, he said, intervened in the matter and the stipend was reduced to some $8,000.
Maharaj stressed that he had no agenda against Sookoo, but was on the path to ensuring value for money.
“I am not involved in the election of the ASTT, that is for the membership. I can tell you that I will be going to the Cabinet for a revised ASTT act. This is the only elected board where if board members or the president become rogue, little can be done about it,” said Maharaj.
He added there was concern with respect to the payment of salaries at ASTT—which head of the Public Service Association (PSA) Watson Duke had to personally get involved in.
“I have great difficulty with that, being a public officer myself, I took interest in that to ensure public officers are not victimised because they are not doing the bidding of Mrs Sookoo,” said Maharaj.
He asked where the money has gone under Sookoo’s management.
The minister said he also has difficulty with ASTT’s use of monies to “penalise” people using the courts. He said there was an issue where a legal battle was staged between Sookoo and two members of the ASTT who she expelled for life from the organisation.
Maharaj said the monies allocated to ASTT were geared to assist farmers and not engage in expensive legal battles.
ASTT vice-president Lall Bhagaloo also dismissed Sookoo’s claims that he and the minister were conspiring to remove her from office.
“That is nonsense. I don’t even want to go back in that thing. I want to leave, but I want to make sure that before I leave these things are settled,” said Bhagaloo.
He said it was offensive for Sookoo to appoint a board member to act as president in her absence, when he was “mentally and physically fit” to so do.
Bhagaloo said he also believes a speedy investigation was needed.