DEPUTY CHIEF Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly Watson Duke has responded to the Attorney General’s legal action as it relates to his appointment while also still being the head of the Public Service Association (PSA).
“Our position is that it is an abuse of process as it is seeking a legal opinion that is hypothetical and academic having regard to the facts before the court,” Duke’s attorney, Anand Ramlogan, SC, said at a virtual hearing before the emergency judge, Justice Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell on Monday.
On Thursday, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi filed a construction summons in the High Court to interpret a section of the THA Act as it relates to Watson Duke’s appointment as deputy chief secretary while also serving as head of the PSA and a member of the registration, recognition and certification board (RRCB).
The claim also seeks to have the court interpret the Industrial Relations Act and the Integrity in Public Life Act as it relates to Duke’s position as current head of the PSA – at least until Tuesday when the union’s conference of delegates meets to consider his resignation and appoint a new president.
Duke offered his resignation last Wednesday, effective December 31.
The AG’s claim contends Duke receives remuneration from the PSA and the RRCB. The latter falls under the Ministry of Labour and deals exclusively with the recognition of a trade union by an employer and matters related to this.
Ramlogan, in response to a submission from the AG’s lead attorney Fyard Hosein, SC, who pointed out the possible conflict of interest Duke was in, maintained his client wrote a letter of resignation which was to be accepted by the PSA’s conference of delegates.
“It may be a non-issue if the conference accepts his resignation.”
He said it was not because the Attorney General had a particular view, they shared the same.
“We have ours and we are of the view this is grossly politically exaggerated.”
He said any conflict Duke may find himself in as deputy chief secretary can be dealt with by him recusing himself from the process “as the AG has done with rentals.”
Ramlogan urged the judge not to allow the court to be used “as a political fulcrum.
“This highly politically-sensitive matter.”
Both Duke and THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine, who was represented by attorney Kiel Tacklalsingh, were on the virtual link. The RRCB is represented by a team of attorneys led by Reginald Armour, SC.
Tacklalsingh also represents the THA. The PSA, which was served with the proceedings, did not put in an appearance.
In his submissions, Hosein said the matter was not adversarial but seeks to bring clarity to a “very important issue” as it related to the THA election and the Integrity in Public Life Act.
He said the AG wanted to ensure whatever decision made by the new assembly was not affected because of Duke’s roles, including his position on the RRCB which was a quasi-judicial body.
“The purpose of litigation is to get it right. He continues to be a member of the recognition board and that is of concern to us as it is a quasi-judicial body that pays a salary.” He said the RRCB had to appear to be unbiased and any decision it makes must be done with “purity” and without an appearance of bias while ensuring its integrity remained unpolluted.
“That is a concern of the State.”
He said Duke offered his resignation to the PSA, but did not resign.
“The conference may or may not accept. For time being he is a member and president of the PSA.
“Why did he not resign immediately? If the PSA does not accept, the question remains live.”
He also questioned if the union represented THA workers, also referring to the Prime Minister’s vaccine mandate for public servants from mid-January.
“The PM has announced regulations for public servants. That is significant. The PSA represents represent the vast majority of public servants…the issue is Mr Duke, as president of the PSA, cannot be representing public sector workers and be a member of the executive as deputy chief secretary trying to enforce an executive mandate for public sector workers.”
In response to Ramlogan and Taklalsingh asking for a one-month adjournment to file affidavits, Hosein said it was a delay strategy to avoid guerrilla warfare.
“He continues to be PSA president and deputy secretary of THA… it could be the law was flouted from the inception.”
Armour said his client’s position was to “take the most impartial position” to assist the court.
“We want to remain as neutral as necessary …We must adhere to strict appearance of impartiality but would have representations to ensure the court’s rulings are correct.”
Donaldson-Honeywell ordered attorneys to file affidavits in December and January but was reluctant to set a date for the next hearing as she is not the docketed judge for the matter.
She explained she is the emergency judge during the court’s vacation period and was only assigned the matter since an urgent hearing was asked for when the matter was filed.
The filing of the construction, or interpretation, summons, which seeks to have the court interpret the law as it relates to a particular issue, came immediately after the THA election on December 6, in which Duke’s Progressive Democratic Patriots won 14 of the 15 seats.
It also followed warnings by the Attorney General to Augustine of a conflict of interest in Duke’s appointment as deputy chief secretary.
Augustine gave Duke a three-month ultimatum to put his house in order, but Al-Rawi insisted the PSA president had to step down from the union immediately.