Agriculture is a dirty business.
And when it comes to flinging mud, it's a David-and-Goliath battle taking place between farmers at the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago (ASTT) and its president, Dhano Sookoo.
Three farmers groups from South Trinidad, representing some 400 farmers, have taken up tools against Sookoo for what they say are breaches in the Ordinance and Rules of the ASTT.
The groups—Agriblazers, led by Elizabeth Mohammed-Ali; Bon Aventure/Mayo/Whiteland Farmers Association, led by president Terry Samaroo; and Siparia/Erin Cocoa Farmers Association, led by Oscar Cadette—as well as Krishendath Sooknanan, met with the Sunday Express last week to discuss their issues with the governance of the ASTT.
The group alleged Sookoo manages ASTT's business based on favouritism to certain farmers groups which support her.
They also claim there is no proper accounting of the society's funds, which come primarily from a subvention from the Ministry of Finance.
Last year, the Government allocated $3.9 million for ASTT in its 2011/2012 budget.
The group gave the Sunday Express copies of board minutes to support their claims of excessive compensation for Sookoo.
On February 9, at the meeting of the Finance and Administration Sub Committee of the ASTT, the issue of remuneration for the president was discussed.
The minutes of the meeting noted: "The president stated that according to the State Enterprise Performance Manual, the president and vice-president do not get a board remuneration. They are executives of the board and should get a salary. When asked, the secretary stated that presently there is no other item under which to pay this salary."
Mohammed-Ali pointed out that Sookoo was using information from a manual for State enterprises, and ASTT was a statutory body so it was not applicable.
When it came the to president's remuneration, from which Sookoo recused herself, the minutes point to Christopher Greenidge, stating that the president's $10,000 remuneration was "ridiculous" based on his observation of the Estimates of Expenditure 2012 Remuneration of the Top Executives in the Public Service which was $25,700 and up.
"Mr Greenidge suggested the president get back all the monies that was taken away from her," the minutes read.
The eight directors present at that meeting agreed to give Sookoo a salary increase from $10,000 to $25,700, with the vice-president's salary moving from $7,500 to $15,000.
In that meeting, the board also agreed that: "The president will still have a $5,000 limit to incur expenditure without prior approval."
At the May 17 meeting of the Finance and Administration Sub Committee of ASTT, Sookoo was afforded more money by the board.
Under Item 11, titled Allowances for the President, they approved a clothing allowance of $1,500 a month, an entertainment allowance of $2,000 a month and a subsistence allowance of $3,000 a month.
Those allowances were in addition to her salary, which the Sunday Express learned was subsequently increased to $32,200.
In addition, the board agreed to pay her for vacation retroactively Under Item 17. She was paid a lump sum for two weeks for her first year in 2008 and one month's salary from 2009 to 2012.
But yesterday, Sookoo defended the salary against the group, describing them as "mischief makers".
She told the Sunday Express her earnings were in line with a government minister.
She explained to the Sunday Express that under the constitution of the ASTT, the president and the vice-president can hold no other public office.
"Am I supposed to work for free? Am I supposed to go to meetings in raggy, old clothes? The board agreed to pay the president and the vice-president. Why is there no comment on the salary of the vice-president?
"When I calculate the hours I work a day, it is
only a few dollars a day. Compare that to board members who get $5,000 for working just one day! I work 18 hours a day.
"Where are the mischief-makers today when I am marching against praedial larceny? What morality they have to question my salary?" she asked.
Sookoo was yesterday part of a march in Sangre Grande against praedial larceny.
The Sunday Express asked her about allegations she victimises farmer groups for grants if they do not support her, but Sookoo scoffed at the idea.
"The doors of the San Fernando Magistrates' Court and the Port of Spain Court are open to anyone who feels they are being victimised by the president of the ASTT," she responded.
She told the Sunday Express in her four years as president, she hass been dealing with an audit problem.
She said she tried to change the constitution because she only has four permanent members of staff and the auditing process had failed.
She said she was still cleaning up a mess from 2002 and there are no systems in place to ensure accounts are in place.
Come Tuesday, she noted, the ASTT will be interviewing people to hire an accountant to help get ASTT's accounts right.
"What I have achieved for the society so far, no Minister has achieved in 50 years of the independence in this country.
"I have five children. My husband does not work. If my board feels that I should be paid for the work I do, that's fine. I don't get any more than a Member of Parliament. Some people are shocked at the little amount I receive, but I do it for love and passion for my country," she said.Audit Report
dated Feb 1, 2012
Auditing assistant Sookdeo Sonnylal from the former Ministry of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs, conducted an audit into the affairs of the ASTT in January. The audit was to determine whether the processes used by the ASTT are in accordance with generally accepted accounting practices, whether the affairs of the Society are conducted in accordance with applicable laws, regulations and directives and whether the practices and procedures utilised are sufficient to safeguard the assets of the society.
The findings of the audit reveal that:
"The accounting practices at the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago were poor, the internal controls were weak and expose the organisation to:
• material misstatements on its financial reports
• the likelihood of erroneous decisions
• the possibility of money being manipulated for private gain.
• There were no documented established accounting processes used by the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago.
• Responsibility and authority of each office were not clearly identified.
• Some tasks were not being performed and when done could not be realised on as the basis for decision making by management.
• Supervisory checks were few and in some instances not conducted at all.
• The Cash Receipt Book, the Register of Cheque Book and other books of prime entries and ledgers were not updated.
• End of the year Financial Statements were not prepared since 2004.
• Moneys were not reserved as commitments for goods and services ordered.
• Payment cheques were issued without verification of bank balances.
• Moneys were spent from revenue without it being first brought to account and deposited into the bank account.
• The petty cash book was not properly maintained with no entries made since October 2011.
• The petty cash book was not balanced when vouchers were redeemed or at the end of the month.
• There was no evidence to indicate that periodic and surprise checks were conducted on the petty cash account or that the work of the imprest holder was monitored and supervised.
• Expenditure records were incomplete, the vote control legder was not updated since October 2011.
• The cash book was not balanced at the end of the work day. Totals of income and expenditure were to shown in the cash book
• In most instances purchases are made verbally without the issue of a corresponding follow-up purchase order
• There was no recording of amounts committed for purchases of goods and services
• At January 20, 2012, expenditure under vote 8/02/001/62 Promotions, Publicity and Printing exceeded the amounts released by $133,129.98
• On December 15, 2011, a cheque was issued to Alvin Ramroop in the amount of $63,375 for which there were insufficient funds for it to be honoured.
• The stock of receipt books could not be verified as the receipt/issue vouchers were not provided for audit examination
• The annual subscription cash book was not updated since December 29, 2011. Receipts issued from numbers S07595 to S08446 representing a total of $84,600 were not brought to account in cash book.
• The duties of maintaining the register was not assigned to any one individual.
• Records of investments were not produced for audit examination.
Security of cash, receipts books
and cheque books
• There was no safe/vault with two independent locking mechanisms for the safekeeping of cash, cheques and receipt books. Cash was kept in a filing cabinet which could be accessed by more than one individual without the knowledge of the other.
• There was no strong room or vault for keeping personnel records
The office of the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago was housed on rented premises at Penco Street, Chaguanas, contrary to the provision of the Agricultural Society Act 1 of 1919.
• The accounting processes be clearly established and documented
• That the responsibility and authority of each employee be detailed with standards of operation and schedule time frame for completion of each task
• The Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago has three bank accounts with Republic Bank Ltd. No approval was seen from the Ministry of Finance for these accounts. The stock of cheque books could not be verified as the receipt/issue voucher for the cheque books was not presented for audit examination. In all three accounts there were irregularities.
• The investigation of a credit facility with a fuel supplier to provide supplies of fuel and lubricants to the Society's vehicle.