T&T Finance Minister fires National Quarries chairman

(Trinidad Express) Finance and Economy Minister Larry Howai has fired the chairman of National Quarries (NQ), Mitra Ramkhelawan.

In response to an e-mail query from the Sunday Express yesterday, Howai, who copied his response to Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine, stated: “I can confirm that Mr Ramkhelawan is no longer chairman of the board.”

Ramnarine, who is out of the country, simply said: “Acknowledged”.

Howai’s actions follows a series of calls for Ramkhelawan to be removed, including from Communication Workers Union (CWU), the lobby group Fixin T&T and from 60 of the company’s 70 permanent employees, following allegations of corruption during his tenure at the State company which have been reported exclusively in the Express.

The Sunday Express was told that Ramkhelawan was fired by letter on Friday.

His dismissal follows from a meeting, along with the rest of the board, with Howai on Wednesday and the conclusion of an audit conducted on the State company by the Central Audit Committee of the Ministry of Finance.

The Sunday Express understands the audit will be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

It is the second time Howai has taken action on allegations levelled at members of State boards.

On May 17, he fired the entire Caribbean Airlines (CAL) board, without the approval of Cabinet, on corporate governance issues.

However, dismissed CAL chairman Rabindra Moonan was appointed as chairman of the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) one month later and director Avedanand Persad was appointed to the board of the Estate Management and Business Development Company Ltd (EMBD).

Yesterday, Howai declined to give reasons why Ramkhelawan was fired, except for the affirmation that he was no longer chair at NQ.

Ramkhelawan has maintained his innocence against allegations of financial impropriety and mismanagement at the State organisation.

However, the allegations have been referred to the Integrity Commission and the Fraud Squad of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service by suspended National Quarries chief executive Sandra Fernandez.

Fernandez was suspended one day after she reported to the police claiming that two senior officials at the company were forging documents to cover up the acquisition of equipment.

In the suspension letter, signed by Ramkhelawan, her qualifications had come into question after two years on the job.

Apart from the alleged fraud cover-up at the company, Chaguanas police are also investigating who authorised a Chaguanas-based police officer to twice visit Fernandez’s St Joseph home to deliver a suspension letter, on October 10 and again on October 16.

The officer has since been transferred but Supt Johnny Abraham is investigating on whose orders the officer, under his jurisdiction, was acting to deliver the letters.

In a letter to employees, which Ramkhelawan issued on the Friday he was fired, he condemned the investigative reporting by the Express newspapers, put the blame for issues in the public domain on Fernandez’s shoulders, and apologised to the employees for statements he made about them.

Ramkhelawan said the statements about employees—“the 20 per cent are lousy, low-grade, low-down people who are very unproductive and they are the ones in the unions”—were made “off the record”.

However, on September 17, Ramkhelawan made those statements 35 minutes into an interview with the Express, which lasted 49 minutes, and which were on the record.

When the Express asked: “Aren’t you concerned that statements like those can impact on morale?” Ramkhelawan replied: “Serious?”

Express: “Aren’t you?”

Ramkhelawan: “No. Why? The truth? Why we must couch our words?”

In that interview, he had praised Fernandez’s tenure as CEO, stating: “She’s made more money than any CEO in the history of this company. The qualification is the bottom line, not idiots with PhDs who can’t do one thing. It’s the bottom line. Can you get the job done? Can you turn around the company? That is the qualification.”

However, in his letter to employees, he stated: “At the moment the members of the board are addressing a disciplinary matter concerning the CEO whom you are well aware has been suspended. Most of the matters you are alleged to have raised with the Express newspapers are the responsibility of the CEO. Moreover, as you would know, these are not matters that would have arisen yesterday or in the past week.”

Ramkhelawan distanced himself from issues raised by the employees, such as the disrepair of the wash plants, the silt drains being filled, and unaccounted material leaving Turure and Blanchiseusse.

He identified the suitable manager in each instance and observed: “It should be noted that the above-mentioned persons and departments report directly to the CEO Mrs Sandra Fernandez and not to the board of directors or the strategic unit.”

He said after the disciplinary hearings, the board would seek to fill the vacant posts at the company by first employing a human resource manager by year-end.

Three directors—Gregory Nurse, Alban Scott and Perry Polar—tendered their resignations following the Express investigative reports, while two others—Satee Chillar and Stephen Dubay—have given statements at odds with Ramkhelawan, only to refute them in subsequent newspaper advertisements.

“These have been very challenging times for all of us and it has resulted, in part, to the recent resignations of members of the board. The reasons are quite varied, but such information is held as private and confidential and will not be made public without expressed consent and legal approval.

“Suffice it to say, that I and other members of the board are committed to fixing National Quarries and to doing all that is necessary to stay the course towards improved performance and sustainable profitability,” Ramkhelawan ended his four-page letter to the staff.

The Express has reported on the questionable hiring at NQ; the preference given to three firms—Alternetica Caribbean (owned by an employee of Ramkhelawan’s own Trius Medical Sales, Ted Peralta), Amseph Contractors (registered by his daughter Amy Ramkhelawan), and Raldon Construction (owned by Gopaul & Company)—over others; the questionable aggregate supplied to the construction of Government’s $7.2 billion highway to Point Fortin; the financial dealings in the purchase of an excavator and bulldozer; and an alleged fraud cover-up which resulted in the suspension of the company’s chief executive after she took action

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