Gavel

THE firing of 20 employees from the Security Intelligence Agency (SIA) breached the rules of natural justice in an “egregious and humiliating” manner.

This was the finding of the Industrial Court, as the employees also questioned the rationale for their firing and dismissed excuses of restructuring and downsizing, since over 100 new employees were hired under the then—Kamla Persad-Bissessar government.

This was followed by the elevation of technician Reshmi Ramnarine to the post of director, and Carlton Dennie to a top-level position.

On Wednesday, the Industrial Court ruled in favour of the former employees, awarding them close to $10 million in damages.

The panel, which was chaired by Sandra Ramparas, and whose members included Gregory Rousseau and Melvin Daniel, noted: “The court wishes to express its deepest concern for the egregious manner in which the Ministry of National Security conducted itself in the lock-out and subsequent dismissal of these workers. Not one single principle or practice of good industrial relations was adhered to prior to and subsequent to these dismissals. It would be difficult to find a more humiliating and egregious breach of the fundamental rules of natural justice.”

Additionally, one employee stated that during a meeting with the permanent secretary at the Ministry of National Security, Jennifer Boucaud-Blake, the PS indicated that she and the minister were unaware that the firings were taking place, and instead the Attorney General was the one “calling the shots” at the SIA.

The AG at the time was Anand Ramlogan.

The court also heard that in 2013, the National Security Council Secretariat, which was headed by Persad-Bissessar, had requested from the Chief Personnel Officer terms and conditions of “employment for positions in the SIA for the period October 1st, 2008 to September 1, 2011”.

The panel also noted that the evidence of the employees were consistent and were in no way challenged by the Ministry of National Security or the permanent secretary.

Appearing for the ministry was attorney Derek Ali, while the Communication Workers’ Union was represented by attorney Anthony Bullock.

The former employees—Beverly Hinds, Andre Redman, Fitzherbert Niles, Lenore Winchester, Denise Faray, Sherry Ann Trang Yew, Herbert Paul, Arlene Victor, Jenelle Cipriani, Travis Morton, Alana Humphrey, Lesliean Charles, Leon Smart, Clint Eligon, Martin Phillip, Adaoha Kwesi, Hezron Granville, Susan Jeremiah, Ann Charles and Carlene Haynes—took action against the ministry following their dismissal.

The employees, prior to their firing, were identified by then-Senior Supt of Police Surajdeen Persad, then second in command at Special Branch, as being loyal to the People’s National Movement.

Persad, in a report to Persad-Bissessar on October 15, 2010, stated that those identified had “close links with the PNM and occupy senior and influential positions at the SIA”.

He recommended that the director of the SIA, who at the time was Nigel Clement, “as well as persons mentioned in paragraphs (4) and (5) of the report should be relieved of their positions immediately, in order to safeguard the flow of sensitive information to the PNM and other persons linked to Mr Clement”.

The workers stated that sometime between October 10 and 23, 2010, they were informed, through a variety of sources, that their offices were closed and they were not to report to work.

Their dismissal letters were delivered to them by a variety of means, either from some friend or a driver from the SIA.

Additionally, Persad had recommended that an interim management committee headed by SIA’s Reshmi Ramnarine (technical operator) and Carlton Dennie, among others, be appointed “immediately to protect the assets of the State”.

‘If it wasn’t sad, it would have been ultra-comedic’

Manager, Human Resources, Beverly Hinds, in her affidavit to the court, noted that on “Saturday October 23rd, 2010 around nine a.m., just as I was heading into office, I received a text message from Alana Humphrey telling me not to go in, as I usually did, because the agency was locked down under the Attorney General’s Anti Corruption Bureau.”

At the time the Anti-Corruption Investigative Bureau fell under the remit of the Office of the AG.

Hinds, in her testimony said, “We were prevented from going into office from that day forward, with no information forthcoming except that Julie Browne and Carlton Dennie were in charge. In the meantime, we were only hearing lies on the news. In the chaos that ensued, we were told that Keron Ganpat (a young man with about six years’ experience, whom I had recruited for the National Security Council Secretariat) was now head. A few days later I was called to a meeting with him, by security guard Myrtle Pilgrim Edwards sticking to me like glue. Mr Williams eventually told me that Ganpat no longer wanted to meet, but needed access to my HR files. I gave them the keys and left. That meeting never materialised. Then I heard he was no longer the director.

Hinds recounted that in November 2010, she along with Alana Humphrey-Deputy, director of administration and finance, “sought an audience with the permanent secretary of the Ministry of National Security, Ms Jennifer Boucaud-Blake. We met with her and we were basically told that neither she nor the Minister of National Security had an idea of what was going on, that the attorney general was calling the shots.

“Please note that every single one of our contracts was between the individual and the PS of National Security. And neither she, nor the minister, had any idea of what was happening—fascinating.”

Hinds continued: “Then on the night of December 23rd, 2010, at 8.30 p.m., I received a call from Damien Scott, a technician, telling me he had a letter for me and he wanted to deliver it then. I told him no, that we could meet the next day, and I asked what was it about. He told me he believes it was a letter ending my contract. I told him where and when to meet me the next day, and what to bring from my office for me. Of course he got it wrong, but we eventually met. He gave me the letter at the top of St Vincent Street as well as a few personal items I had at the office.

“Next I heard a very junior technician operator—Reshmi Ramnarine—was recommended for the head of the agency, this is after being run by a brigadier general, then a captain with many years’ experience in the army... If it weren’t so very sad it would be ultra comedic.”

New appointments not making sense

Lenore Winchester, in paragraph 14 of her witness statement, stated inter alia: “The envelope contained my letter of termination dated December 23rd, 2014 which indicated that my position as intelligence officer was no longer relevant in the agency’s new dispensation as the reason for my dismissal. I could not fathom how my position as an Intelligence Officer 1, the highest grade among Intelligence Officers, become irrelevant in an intelligence agency and secondly, given my experience in at least three of the agency’s core areas of business, that I was not given an opportunity to function in another capacity while the position of several others whom I trained and mentored and who were far less experienced than I, remained relevant.

“More confusing, is the fact that Carlton Dennie, then a technician, was elevated to the position of Acting Intelligence Officer 1, by letter dated January 2nd, 2011, a mere few days after my termination.”

Additionally, Clint Eligon, Chief of Telecom Security, in his testimony stated, “It is however noted that Reshmi Ramnarine was appointed to my substantive position before being appointed Director SIA.”

Court: How were

these persons chosen?

On what basis were these 20 individuals chosen, the court panel had questioned, since there was no evidence “that all of the persons employed by the SIA were terminated on the 23rd December, 2010”.

The ministry, in its defence, had stated the dismissals were due to the Interception of Communications Act, which conferred authority on three authorised officers to conduct interception, thereby it became illegal for the SIA to conduct interception. The ministry had also contended that arising out of its merger with the Strategic Services Agency (SSA), the SIA employees were no longer required.

The court noted that the unchallenged evidence of one of the employees—legal assistant Lesliean Charles—was that in October, 2010, the agency employed some 163 workers.

“The question therefore is on what basis were these 20 workers chosen. We received no evidence that all of the persons employed by the SIA were terminated on the 23rd December, 2010. The employer contended that because the Interception of Communications Act conferred authority on three authorised officers to conduct interception, it became illegal for the SIA to conduct interception. Further, they stated that arising out of a merger between the SSA and the SIA the positions of the workers were no longer required in the new organisational structure.”

The panel noted the unchallenged evidence of Denise Farray-Constantine that the SIA was not involved only in the interception of communication.

“Therefore, we find no logical connection between the Interception Act conferring authority on three authorised Officers to conduct interception and the mysterious disappearance of the workers’ job functions. It could not be that these three officers were now magically performing the multiplicity of functions performed by the dismissed workers.”

The panel added that based on what was presented to the court, the Interception of Communication Act No 11 of 2010 “was conveniently used as a ruse in the employer’s quest to justify the egregious nature of the workers’ dismissals”.

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