[UPDATED] Chief Secretary calls for AG to drop lawsuit: THA cash-strapped, dealing with covid19

THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine - Jeff K. Mayers
THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine - Jeff K. Mayers

CHIEF Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Farley Augustine says the health and financial situation on the island are dire.

With all his energies focused on resolving these issues which are critical to Tobago, he has asked a High Court judge to strike out the Attorney General’s interpretation claim as it relates to Deputy Chief Secretary Watson Duke.

“All of the THA's focus, all of my energies, all of our efforts and resources are currently directed towards resolving these and many other critical issues…I can see no practical, public or other benefit to the people of Tobago, or indeed the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, for the instant proceedings,” Augustine said in an affidavit in support of the application.

The application was filed on Wednesday, the same day Duke’s attorneys filed a similar one.

The AG’s claim seeks to have the court clarify the law as it related to Duke’s appointment while still being head of the Public Service Association (PSA) and a member of the Registration, Recognition and Certification Board (RRCB).

Duke has resigned from both positions, including his substantive job at the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) from where he was on a leave of absence since November 2009.

He says he has not started any work as deputy chief secretary nor was he assigned a portfolio to lead a division of the THA.

In the application for Augustine and the THA, the judge is being asked to strike out the December 16 claim or dismiss it against the two on the grounds it is an abuse of process and it is academic.

The application set out the complaint of the interpretation claim, saying it was filed without proper adherence to pre-action protocols and without sufficient notice to the Chief Secretary and the assembly.

Augustine and the Assembly are represented by a team of attorneys including former AGs Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC; John Jeremie, SC; Lesley Grey and Kiel Taklalsingh.

The application said both the assembly and its chief secretary were currently facing serious challenges relating to the covid19 pandemic and stabilising the financial position of the THA.

“While these defendants are willing to assist the honourable court in any way, they ought not to be required to do so where the issues have become academic and hypothetical.”

The application said the underlying factual basis for the State’s claim no longer existed.

“If the claim were to proceed, the first and third defendant would be forced to expend already scarce financial and other resources.”

It also said attorneys wrote to the State asking that the matter be discontinued but it refused to do so.

In response to that letter, the legal director in the AG’s secretariat Tenille Ramkissoon told Taklalsingh the State disagreed with his clients’ position.

She outlined ten reasons why the claim was not academic and insisted it will not be withdrawn.

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 were employed in two state entities.

Ramkissoon also said the AG has refused to accept the media reports that Duke had resigned from the PSA and the RRCB.

In the affidavit, Augustine pointed to Tobago’s deadliest day of the covid19 pandemic on January 1, saying also he has been in a series of back-to-back crisis meetings and discussions with experts and various public servants to craft an appropriate strategy to effectively combat covid19 on the island.

“This has been a time-consuming exercise and is obviously my first priority.

The THA also faces severe financial issues at this time. Tobago was expected to receive $300 million dollars in bond financing from the Finance Ministry, however only $163 million was received in May and in less than six months, prior to the election practically all of that $163 million was fully committed by the previous administration.

Augustine said he had before him a request from the Division of Health for over $100 million to prepare and sustain a parallel healthcare system in Tobago.

He said when Al-Rawi wrote to him, his letter did not indicate it was pre-action correspondence.

“Further, while the letter asked for me to ‘advise as a matter of utmost urgency and immediacy’ it did not provide me with a timeframe for a response.”

Augustine said when Al-Rawi gave the ultimatum that Duke had to choose, he said he felt the responsible and prudent thing to do was to give him an opportunity to be heard.

“I assumed at that time that the Attorney General would also have pursued such a course of action with Mr Duke. It was therefore a matter of some consternation for me to learn afterwards that the Attorney General had not bothered to write to Mr Duke on this issue to obtain his views.”

He also said while he waited on advice from his senior counsel, it was already in the public domain that the PSA had ceased all remuneration and benefits to Duke.

Nevertheless, he said he chose not to ask the President to appoint Duke as a secretary “out of an abundance of caution.”

He said the AG wrote to him again on December 15, but he did not get the correspondence before the claim was filed the next day and he considered it “highly unreasonable for the Attorney General to expect me to respond to the issues” hours before the matter was to be called before the emergency court.

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"[UPDATED] Chief Secretary calls for AG to drop lawsuit: THA cash-strapped, dealing with covid19"

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