Taxpayers, through the Ministry of Sport, have paid $150,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim brought by a former personal secretary to the minister, Darryl Smith.
Sources close to the ministry told Sunday Newsday the woman had alleged sexual impropriety against her by a high-ranking member of the ministry.
She was subsequently terminated. After challenging the ministry’s decision in the Industrial Court, she was awarded $150,000. Sunday Newsday understands she was also asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
The minister is distancing himself from the matter. In a response to Sunday Newsday via What’s App, Smith said: “While (name called) was at one point in time my assistant, I was not a party to any trade dispute at the Industrial Court nor any settlement agreement. This would be easily confirmed by any official documents you may have in your possession. I, therefore, am unable to provide any comment with respect to matters where I was clearly not a party.”
In a document stamped January 26, 2017, the ministry said the total paid to the woman amounted to an estimated savings of $84,360.
The plaintiff, who was represented by the National Union of Government and Federated Workers, initially made a claim for $234,360 – the total sum of her initial 30-month contract, plus a $45,360 gratuity payment.
The plaintiff had started work in January 2016 and was terminated in April. She was paid “one month’s salary in lieu of notice” in May, documents show. Sunday Newsday was told she was terminated for non-performance, although she had never been given any prior notice of dissatisfaction by her employers.
On January 24, 2017, Judith Joseph, one of the attorneys at the Ministry of Sport, sought approval for a settlement order and non-disclosure agreement, hopefully concluding a trade dispute brought against the ministry by the former personal secretary to Smith.
The following day, the permanent secretary, Natasha Barrow, signed off on the request, and on January 26, cheque #553 in the amount of $150,000 was issued. It was collected by Joseph.
A non-disclosure agreement is a contract in which the parties involved agree not to disclose the information therein. It is confidential and protects any type of proprietary information or trade secrets.
Such agreements are also common in sexual harassment cases, especially in the private sector, said one attorney to whom Sunday Newsday spoke, usually to mask distorted power dynamics where high-ranking personalities may have tried to take advantage of subordinates.
In the public sector, because of transparency and accountability policies, they are generally unheard of, especially in cases to do with an employee’s termination.
Another attorney, Lyndon Leu of Leu, Khan-Leu and Company, who agreed to give his opinion on the record, said non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases in the private sector, and even in a state enterprise, aren’t unusual, especially if the information may be false, so as not to permanently tarnish reputations.
In a ministry, however, if public funds are used, this would be a matter of good governance, and something for the Auditor General to note. He added that it would not be wrong, per se, to use external counsel, but that would need to be authorised, likely by Cabinet, with the scope of the counsel outlined.
Leu also said it was rare to have non-disclosure agreements in the public sector because they usually relate to information that is not public in nature, but since the advent of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), there isn’t much in the public sector that isn’t considered public information.
Sunday Newsday requested all public documents pertaining to the case filed in the Industrial Court, but was informed via e-mail that after an investigation, “this particular matter… is exempt from under the FOIA.”
While $150,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to the ministry’s nearly $280 million budget, at the very least the transaction seems improper because it’s public funds and so should be more transparent.
Sunday Newsday was also told that the high-ranking official had consulted the ministry’s legal team on advice on how to settle the matter privately, but many refused to entertain the possibility because they were uncomfortable with the circumstances. Outside counsel was therefore sought. When the decision had been made to settle the matter, staff at the ministry refused on the grounds of personal integrity to follow through with the request to sign off on it. Sunday Newsday was reliably informed that former acting permanent secretary at the ministry Ian Ramdahin had also, during his time, raised questions about why an external lawyer was settling a matter for the ministry, but nothing came of the query.
When Barrow joined the ministry, she was the one who ultimately approved the payment.
Contacted by Sunday Newsday to clarify the situation, she said she could not remember the circumstances.
“I can’t recall everything that came across my desk at that time,” she said.
Barrow was also the permanent secretary who approved the Sport Ministry’s luxury three-day weekend jaunt at the Magdalena Grande hotel in Tobago last May, which cost taxpayers approximately $90,000. She was moved from the ministry after news of that event broke.
Joseph, the ministry’s legal officer, who prepared the note requesting the cheque, did not respond to calls for comment.
Sunday Newsday also contacted Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, as the highest legal officer in government, for clarification on non-disclosure policies involving state agencies and public funds, specifically the $150,000 payment barred from scrutiny because of the non-disclosure agreement.
Al-Rawi said this would require an understanding of the matter and the particulars, and said, “I am not familiar with the matter and therefore can’t speculate.”
On Friday during parliamentary questions, Opposition MP Barry Padarath asked if the Minister of Sport (in this case, acting minister Nyan Gadsby-Dolly) could say whether a former personal secretary to the minister had brought industrial action for wrongful dismissal on the grounds of sexual harassment by a high-ranking official. His question was disallowed by Deputy Speaker Esmond Forde.