Clarence Rambharat

Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat

The Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago (ASTT) headed by Dhano Sookoo appears to be a runaway horse with a number of grave allegations of impropriety levelled against the organisation.

The Ministry of Finance Investments Division Central Audit Committee has produced a report on the audit of the ASTT which recommended that the Agriculture Ministry should follow-up with the police on its fraud probe into the ASTT and consider commissioning a forensic audit into the entity.

Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat told the Express yesterday that he was alarmed by some of the things happening in the ASTT but he awaits their reply to the report before any action is taken.

The August 2019 report states that the ASTT needs to be placed under a microscope and it knocked Sookoo’s leadership, adding: “Since Ms Dhano Sookoo became President of ASTT in 2008 the number of issues escalated. These include allegations of misappropriation of funds, breaches of the Rules of the Society, judicial review applications, non submission of financial statements and reports, pre-action protocol letters and court judgments against Ms Sookoo and the ASTT.”

“The MALF (The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) should follow up on the status of the fraud investigation with the Trinidad and Tobago Police and consider commissioning a forensic audit of the ASTT given the plethora of allegations against the Society, lack of accountability and the modus operandi of the Committee of Management and the President. The alleged vandalism and the status of assets purchased with State funds and left under the care of ASTT should be included in the terms of reference for the audit,” the report stated.

It added that the MALF should follow-up and initiate action against any persons found to be in illegal occupation of State lands.

Lack of financial records

According to the report, the ASTT should be repealed and replaced with modern legislation that considers the fundamental changes to the agricultural industry in Trinidad and Tobago.

It also recommended that the Ministry immediately cease payment of monthly stipends to members of the Committee of Management consistent with Cabinet minute number 1951 of 1997 since Government does not appoint members to the Committee of Management.

According to the report, the relevance of the ASTT should be reviewed. It added that the ASTT Act grants too much power to members of the Committee of Management without responsibility and accountability to the line Ministry or the Finance Minister.

It stated that there was no transparency in the organisation and lack of financial records.

“The lack of transparency in the conduct of the annual elections, non-existence of election rules, growing concerns and disassociation by farmers groups and members of the Society over the modus operandi of the ASTT, lack of accountability and reporting to the stakeholders, failure of the ASTT to prepare and submit financial statements for auditing for such a long time is not only unacceptable but a cause for serious concern,” it stated.

“Further the increasing allegations of impropriety, non-adherence and disregard to the rules of the ASTT, mismanagement of public funds, co-mingling of funds, breach of and disregard of the MOU, unauthorised use and disposal of assets, lack of oversight by the MALF and follow-up on matters affecting the probity of actions of the ASTT including the unlawful possession of State lands, usurping the role and the authority of the ASTT Secretary and failure by the Society to abide by decisions and recommendations of the Permanent Secretary, MALF underscores the need for immediate action,” it added.

Asked yesterday whether immediate action will be taken, Rambharat said the audit report was sent to the ASTT to get their comments and in particular the responses of officers identified in the report. A deadline for the ASTT’s response was given by the Permanent Secretary (PS). It is when those responses are received and considered by the PS, the next steps will be determined.

Rambharat said he was concerned about what was going on at the ASTT and requested the audit.

“The Audit Report specifies that based on numerous issues which came to my attention and were passed to various PSs (permanent secretaries) in the Ministry to review and advise me, I took the step of requesting the Audit. I am clear in my mind that there are issues to be addressed in the ASTT and I have always been ready to deal with those issues once the facts were known to me,” he said.

The allegations are serious and consistent with audit findings previously made before 2015, he added.

“I believe however that the ASTT should be allowed to respond. Some recommendations can be considered at this time and others require the ASTT’s response,” he added.

The minister disclosed that more recently he had to bring certain things to the attention to the PS of the Finance Ministry.

“It was when I could not get the Ministry itself to act that I wrote to the Minister of Finance requesting that the Central Audit Committee conduct an audit. In one case there was an alarming resolution approved by the Management Committee of the ASTT that caused me to demand that the Ministry’s PS take certain action. I also complained to the PS Ministry of Finance. I understand that the resolution was subsequently withdrawn,” he said.

“And I can also say that I reported to the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service a State Land matter involving an official of the ASTT. Throughout I have followed a process and ultimately the audit report contains findings and recommendations to which I believe the ASTT needs to respond. Once the ASTT responds to the PS in the time-frame given, that response would be considered and the views of the Central Audit Committee sought if necessary. As I said whatever action needs to be taken, I would cause that action to be taken,” said Rambharat.

Former agriculture minister Devant Maharaj who circulated the audit report on social media said the report findings only confirm the irresponsible pattern of conduct and behaviour at the ASTT that he observed while he was minister.