Poor security at the country’s airports particularly at Piarco remain at the heart of an intense row between the Estate Police Association (EPA) and the Airports Authority of TT (AATT).
In the latest development, five EPA members were suspended from duty with an additional request to the Police Commissioner to revoke their firearm user’s licences. The officers were also ordered to return their equipment and uniforms to the AATT.
The suspended officers: branch vice president Kenneth Joseph, Kamichan Maharaj, Leslie Young, Joshua Wallace and Gary Hayes, have been accused by the AATT of divulging sensitive security matters at a press conference on August 28. They have also been banned from entering the airport’s compound even to transact union business.
Among the issues discussed at that press conference was a multi-million-dollar robbery at Piarco last December in which only $250,000 of more than $ 5million has been recovered. Eleven days later four people were charged with the offence.
The suspensions came a few days after the officers, through their attorney Jared Jagroo, responded to the AATT in writing challenging the authority’s position that the EPA broke protocol by speaking to the media on security issues. They were written to by the AATT on August 31, and told to respond within seven days. The AATT wrote subsequently to another member Zezellin Thomas telling her to respond by last Friday, which she did, however she is expected to be suspended as well on Tuesday when she is assigned to take up duty.
The duration of the suspensions was not stipulated only that it is pending the outcome of a tribunal yet to be set up. Following the suspension, Jagroo wrote to the AATT requesting an extension of 14 days to respond to the action against the officers. The association is arguing that the steps taken against the officers amount to an illegal dismissal. The association claims that stripping the officers of their uniforms and security passes, along with revoking their precepts, are just precursors to a dismissal.
When contacted, both corporate communications manager Zola Joseph and general manager in charge of security, retired Colonel Albert Griffith, said they would not discuss any details regarding security at the airports.
“It would be inappropriate for the authority to discuss matters concerning individual employees in the public domain,” was all Joseph was prepared to say in her emailed response to Sunday Newsday.
The AATT stated in the suspension letters that the association’s members disclosed sensitive security details relating to the operations of the airport to unauthorised persons which was in violation of their contracts. This release of sensitive information, according to the AATT, took place at last month’s press conference. The AATT added there was a further breach in a Sunday Newsday article published on September 2. In response, Jagroo submitted that the association raised concerns with the AATT on several occasions and called a press conference after their complaints fell on deaf ears.
“It is passing strange that the AATT which has blatantly ignored all of the local branch’s previous correspondence, since January 2016, has been able to immediately dispatch no less than six warning letters to our clients a mere two days after hosting the press conference,” Jagroo wrote in his September 7 response to the threat of disciplinary action preceding the suspension.
Jagroo added that while he admits that the AATT and his clients have a contract that implies fidelity and mutual trust and confidence, the AATT’s claim is unfounded.
He added that the failure by the AATT to treat with the security concerns raised by the association was an act of bad faith. Jagroo further submitted that none of his clients divulged any documented sensitive security concerns, as claimed by the AATT, adding that all that was shared were rehashed concerns already in the public domain, but which were not taken seriously. Jagroo further submitted that any attempt to discipline the association members constituted a criminal act according to sections 42 (1)(a) and (d), 2(b) and 3 of the Industrial Relations Act.
To bolster his claim, Jagroo submitted an Express article written on August 30 where Airports Authority general manager Hayden Newton told a joint select committee (JSC) on national security that there were blind spots in Piarco International Airport’s security. JSC chairman Fitzgerald Hinds then submitted that the loopholes will be handled with “rigour and vigour” adding that there was no room for gaps in the security at the airport. A newspaper clipping of a perimeter breach was also highlighted to show that the breaches were already in the public domain and were all true.
At the media conference, Joseph said the security officers have asked management for years to beef up security around the airport. He said the robbery could have been foiled if AATT had an emergency response unit, which was only set up after the robbery. Minutes from an October 2017 meeting with the board requesting the establishment of a response team was shown to Sunday Newsday by a security officer. Days after the robbery, the suggestion was adhered to. Joseph added then that there was limited CCTV coverage of the perimeter fence as well as poor lighting which caused several breaches, one as recent as this year.
A letter signed by then transport minister Stephen Cadiz to the then chairman of the AATT Jason Julien in December 2014 highlighted security concerns at the Piarco airport. Some of the concerns were the ease with which people had access to the loading area of the airport. There was also a lack of surveillance at the car park which resulted in cars being stolen and when there was camera footage, the AATT failed to surrender clear footage to assist police. In the letter, Cadiz asked about the surveillance at the baggage handling area and whether it was approved by the National Operations Centre. He also questioned the lighting, and the perimeter fencing was also raised as a matter of concern. To date those remain issues the association raised.
There was also a security audit done in 2012 which stressed that both Piarco and Arthur NR Robinson International Airport in Tobago are severely understaffed and there was a desperate need for increased manpower, something that has not been addressed to date Sunday Newsday was reliably informed.
The association said they have more security concerns to raise but wanted to do so before a joint select committee of Parliament. They, however, remain doubtful that this will happen since Hinds was once their line minister and those same issues were brought to his attention and nothing was done.