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At the centre of a probe: PSA president Watson Duke speaking during a press conference at the PSA headquarters on Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain, last month.

A half a million-dollar pension payment given to Public Service Association (PSA) President Watson Duke in 2019—who had promised to resign but did not—remains an active police investigation by the Fraud Squad.

And while police continue their investigation, PSA members are growing impatient for the answers as Duke continues to evade questions about the payment that he collected between September 2019 and November 2019.

The alleged financial irregularities at the PSA under Duke as revealed in the CNC3 Unspun programme on Sunday evening have once again surfaced after his wife’s company Blackstone Engineering Tech was recently identified as benefiting from multi-million-dollar contracts from the state entity WASA.

In September 2019, Duke had declared during a press conference that he was stepping down from the PSA and was not contesting the PSA elections.

Duke said then, “I have reached a point where in my career as the PSA president where I would be leaving the PSA. I will be leaving the PSA this year on November 30. It will be my last working day as the president of the PSA.”

Duke’s announcement then had seemingly cleared the way for the PSA to pay Duke some $521,000 as part of a pension payment.

Then acting president of the PSA Ian Murray in an interview with Guardian Media more than a week ago confirmed that Duke received the money in three tranches, and it was paid in three separate cheques to him (Duke).

The September 2019 minutes of a PSA meeting also spoke to the payment and also raised serious concerns in relation to the exorbitant payments made in the month of September, including Duke’s payments under the heading of accounts payable.

The minutes stated, “This amount is unusually high this month, as it includes the balance of outstanding pension to Watson Duke $347,796 and building insurance of $177,039.”

The minutes also addressed staggering losses of the PSA in 2019 up to September of that year which amounted to just over $1 million.

That was five times the losses of the previous year to date according to the document in which the losses were a meagre $270,000.

The document stated, “This deficit is as a result of unusual expenditure within the month of September 2019. These include the final salary arrears payment to staff totalling $588,264, building insurance of $177,039, and pension to the president of $521,695.”

But Murray, who was part of the PSA’s General Council at that time and privy to details of the payment, claimed it was not a pension payment that was made to Duke.

“A lot of people making this payment out to be an actual pension of some sort, but there is an arrangement in the PSA when you out from union duties from the service or your job, in order to preserve your service while you are away from the job you have to remit 25 per cent of your notional salary to whatever is your pension arrangement, so if there is a fixed pension plan, the PSA will remit that certain amount of money that is 25 per cent of the notional salary to the pension plan in case of the civil service they remit it the treasury,” Murray said.

Despite this explanation given by Murray, he still could not say why Duke, when he had declared his intentions to resign from the PSA, did not present a resignation letter to the general council.

“We would not have received any such letter from the president (Duke) on his resignation he would have made a public announcement that he was resigning but basically reneged on that announcement.”

PSA insiders and former executive members gave a differing view from Murray, stating that whether the person is paid a pension or notional salary they were only entitled to such payment when they demitted office. However, Duke never did such and ran for re-election and won. However, those election results are now being challenged in court.

Questions to answer

Former PSA general secretary Oral Saunders, who once worked on Duke’s team, said he had raised several questions about the pension payment with Murray.

“When I challenged the individual (Murray) if a resignation was presented to the council the individual, he told me “no.”

Additionally, I requested from him if there was a letter from WASA, which was the employer of Duke and his substantive post is in WASA, so I asked if there was a letter from HR WASA as to what was the superannuation (retirement) benefits that he would have accumulated so that way the general council being the finance body would have had a clear indication, a clear idea as to how much money was entitled to Mr Duke. Unfortunately, based on the PSA documents at the time none of those issues were presented and I became extremely concerned because I knew on the surface of it, it violated the very constitution of the PSA and what the members supposed to follow through on and even in the wider context the public service someone cannot leave the public service to receive payment for leaving and then return. It is simply unethical, it is illegal, it is just simply cannot happen in the public service and the PSA, our rules, in essence, is predicated upon that,” explained Saunders.

Saunders said Duke was in direct contravention of the PSA Act Section 102 which speaks to when an officer has decided to resign or leave the PSA.

Saunders and other PSA insiders, who spoke to Unspun over the last two weeks, claimed that even before Duke announced his resignation one tranche of the money had already been paid to him in early September.

“This is inconsistent with the PSA’s constitution in terms of how the president and executive should function. They are supposed to first come and present their information or request to the general council and then the council deliberate and based on a majority vote, then they would have disbursed the funds but based on the PSA’s document, that did not take place. They actually began payment prior to the general council meeting and based on their documents that payment began in the month before which was actually September of 2019,” Saunders alleged.

But Murray, who was the acting president at the time of that particular meeting, with Duke strangely absent, rebutted this allegation that it was the general council who approved Duke’s payments.

“The general council did not approve those payments to Mr Duke. That payment is due to all officers if they so choose who would have served the public service, all past officers that would have served in the PSA would have collected that money if they so choose of the treasury of their respective pension accounts,” said Murray.

But Murray’s point seemed to be a moot one, considering the evidence of the minutes of the general council meeting in January 2020, chaired by Duke himself, in which a member seeking clarification on her understanding or notional salary, which could only be paid when someone demitted office. The question had been directed to Duke, who then asked the member which law speaks to her concerns.

On the record, she referred to page 42, section 102 of the PSA constitution. Duke failed to give any response.

Official complaint made to cops

It was this contentious financial issue that prompted Saunders to file an official police report to the Fraud Squad in November 2019. Unspun saw the official police receipt obtained by Saunders. Saunders said in mid-March Fraud Squad had contacted him seeking clarification on the issue and he co-operated.

Saunders said it was important to seek clarification on whether the money “was improperly given out, or if it was done correctly and above board then we are all happy but if it is not then there is cause for concern.”

Former First Vice President Ian Murray said he had nothing to hide and when the time came to co-operate with the police he would.

“I have absolutely no fear if it comes to me, I have no fear of the police. If they come, I will fully co-operate and produce whatever information I have for them.”

Unspun spent close to two weeks trying to get the man in the hot seat to speak to us about this half-a-million-dollar pension payment.

Duke was approached at a joint union meeting some two weeks ago but brushed off the question stating, “I cannot respond to that today. Not today trust me.”

He had even told the reporter, “There are no personal interviews, I not taking anything now.”

On Thursday, March 11 we attempted to contact Duke by phone and left a voice message after he did not answer. We followed up by sending him at least 11 questions via WhatsApp continuously for almost a week and a half-but although he appeared online, and the questions were sent, he later went offline.

On Monday, March 15 we again called his phone, and he ended the call indicating that we should text him.

We again proceeded to text him the same questions we had sent over the last several days, but still never received any response.