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Saturday 17 August 2019
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Activists demand answers

Social activists Rhoda Bharath and Kirk Waithe want answers about why a non-disclosure agreement was used to settle a $150,000 wrongful termination suit against the Ministry of Sport brought by a former personal secretary line Minister Darryl Smith—paid for by taxpayers.

The suit, Newsday has been told, was initially filed after the employee was terminated following a complaint of sexual harassment by a senior member of the Ministry. The government, and Smith, continue to downplay the allegations, stating that the matter is a trade dispute and nothing more. They have also defended the use of NDAs, calling them “common” legal devices. Lawyers to whom Newsday spoke on background have said that while NDAs are indeed common in the private sector, they are much rarer in the public sector because of accountability and transparency policies. “If there is an issue of sexual harassment then the state ought not to be paying settlements to employees for misbehaviour from a public official, whether elected or appointed,” Bharath told Newsday in a telephone call yesterday. Such suits should be payed out of the pocket of the offender and not taxpayers, she said.

An NDA, she added, means that the public can’t know for certain how the money was spent, so it affects accountability and transparency on how public funds are being spent. While Bharath admitted she didn’t understand enough about the technicalities of an NDA, public money should be able to be tracked through vote and line items in the Budget accounts. An NDA prevents people from tracking that expenditure by shielding the details.

“I have no idea what heading of expenditure (a payment made through an NDA) could go under and how to request information via the Freedom of Information Act. If there is an NDA signed by a Ministry it means the public cannot ask questions and get proper answers on public accounts,” she said.

Smith told Newsday two Sundays ago that he was not party to the trade dispute between his former assistant and the Ministry. As such he could not comment. Attorney General Faris Al Rawi had also refused to say in Parliament last week if Smith was involved in the suit, saying instead that the complaint had been file against the Ministry of Sport and the Chief Personnel Officer. “The Minister is hiding behind the Ministry and that is wrong. The category of staff we are referring to here is not a regular contractual position in the ministry, but personal staff. The Minister, then, gets to determine when and how the person is hired or fired,” Bharath said.

Taxpayers, however, pay their salaries, so it’s a “grey area” and for the Minster to suggest he does not know about the termination is disingenuous, she added. Waithe, of Fixin’ T&T, wanted Smith to be fired immediately as Minister, pending an independent investigation into the allegations against the Ministry. He also wanted the NDA details to be released, to account to the public.

The government, he said, is insensitive and lacks commitment to effectively treat with women’s issues. He criticised the “disappointing hands-off approach” it had taken in light of these allegations—much like its reluctance to intervene when the government-appointed chairman of Angostura, Dr Rolph Balgobin, had been accused of sexual harassment by a subordinate.

Balgobin was last November cleared of any wrongdoing in a report by former Justice Rolston Nelson, although neither he nor his accuser had been interviewed. His accuser was subsequently fired.

Al Rawi, when questioned about that case, had steered clear of using the term “sexual harassment” and said he preferred not to speculate on the matter.

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