Deputy Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Watson Duke wants the Attorney General’s lawsuit which related to his appointment while still being head of a trade union at the time struck out.
Duke’s attorneys filed an application in the High Court asking for the December 16, 2021, claim to be struck out and dismissed on the ground that it is an abuse of the court’s process.
He also said the claim is unnecessary and was premature.
Attached to the application is an affidavit by Duke, who says he took all necessary steps after the December 6 THA elections to relinquish his capacities as president of the Public Services Association (PSA) and as a member of the Registration, Recognition and Certification Board (RRCB).
He also said he has not started work as deputy chief secretary and after resigning from the PSA, with effect from December 31, he also resigned his position at the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) with effect from January 3. Duke had been on a leave of absence from WASA since November 2009, to be able to work at the PSA.
“In this vein, I perceive that no occasion has arisen to date whereby there was or a reasonable risk of bias or conflict of interest. I am not aware of the ‘longstanding constitutional conventions’ referred to by the claimant...”
He added, “I find the Attorney General’s concerns to be somewhat hypocritical because there are several sitting Cabinet ministers (including him), who have been forced to recuse themselves from Cabinet meetings due to conflicts of interest.”
AG Faris Al-Rawi’s claim seeks to have the court interpret a section of the THA Act in relation to Duke’s appointment as deputy chief secretary while also serving as head of the PSA and RRCB.
The claim also seeks to have the court interpret the Industrial Relations Act and the Integrity in Public Life Act as they relate to Duke’s position as head of the PSA.
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.
Duke said he has not collected any cheques from the RRCB since October 2021, and resigned on December 9.
He said in the transitional phase between his previous roles and his new appointment, which did not include a portfolio for a THA division, he had no office or resources and staff.
“I have spent the time thus far in this transitional phase designing and planning in further detail my office’s structure, and portfolio objectives.
“Without the portfolio for a division, the responsibilities of the office of deputy Chief Secretary are largely titular."
On his needing to act as Chief Secretary, he said uless the latter were absent through illness, travel or resignation, there was no opportunity for him to act inthe position or exercise any executive authority.
He also said any expenses he had incurred so far, including travel to Trinidad, have come from his personal financial resources, as his "office" remains without a financial and accounting administrator to approve the expenditure.
In the claim, the AG said he was “deeply concerned” that Duke intended to carry out his functions as PSA president while receiving entitlements from the RRCB and wrote to the chief secretary twice articulating his position.
Duke said he was never served with a pre-action protocol letter and had he been sent one, he would have set the record straight, possibly avoiding the costly litigation.
Duke’s application said there was a process under the PSA constitution for his resignation, which he followed. He also said he felt two weeks from his December 13 resignation letter to the date it took effect was a reasonable period for the union to arrange the special meeting and to facilitate a brief transition period, since the duties of a president were vast, as the officeholder was a signatory for all withdrawals from the PSA’s bank accounts and acted as chief negotiator for the union. Hence, he argued, "It would have been irresponsible for me to resign with immediate effect. The disruptive effect would have destabilised the organisation and led to chaos and confusion.”
He also said the PSA was involved in a critical job evaluation involving classifying over 1,500 categories of public officers and he had to brief the new team during the handover of the project and others.
The setting-aside application further contended that although no relief was sought against Duke, his continued naming was prejudicial and contrary to the established practice for interpretation summons.
On Monday, attorneys for Chief Secretary Farley Augustine and the THA wrote to the AG saying the claim had become academic and the clients were reluctant to “expend scarce financial resources in this litigation” and felt it should be withdrawn.
However, the legal director in the AG’s secretariat Tenille Ramkissoon wrote back to the THA’s attorney Kiel Tacklalsingh to disagree.
She outlined ten reasons why the claim was not academic, but Duke’s application contended that new matters were raised, including his previous job at WASA and that two assistant secretaries of the THA’s executive council worked at two state entities.
Ramkissoon also said the AG had refused to accept media reports that Duke had resigned from the PSA and the RRCB.
“The court ought to be wary of being drawn into an academic legal adventure and valueless exercise that serves little to no present or future practical benefit.
“In effect, the substratum of the case and the very grounds which the claimant’s matter relies upon no longer exists. It would be more appropriate to ventilate any important points of public interest arising out of this matter if and when a different factual matrix that legitimately gives rise to these concerns and issues arise.”
Duke is represented by a team of attorneys led by former attorney general Anand Ramlogan, SC, which includes Kent Samlal, Natasha Bisram, Jared Jagroo and Vishaal Siewsarran.
The case has been assigned to Justice Margaret Mohammed. No date has yet been set for a hearing.