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Flashback 2018: WASA workers repair a leak in Beetham Gardens.

Former senior manager at the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) Ken Mahabir yesterday refused to comment on allegations that there were billions of dollars in unauthorised salary and overtime payments during his tenure at the utility—a matter which has now been referred to the Police Service for investigation.

Calls to his cell phone yesterday were answered by a man who initially claimed not to know Mahabir before later claiming he was “just doing some work for him” and promising to relay the messages to Mahabir.

However, Guardian Media also sent several questions to Mahabir via WhatsApp and while they were received and read, no responses were forthcoming up to last night.

Mahabir, who served as WASA’s director of Human Resources, was accused of seven allegations of misconduct in a 2016 audit report prepared by WASA’s Legal Department.

He was employed at the authority from June 28, 2011 and then brought back on contract from January 1, 2015 for a period of three years, with his tenure ending on December 31, 2017. He was suspended on June 16, 2016 and later terminated via a letter dated March 8, 2017, by WASA’s then acting chief executive officer Alan Poon King.

Although Mahabir denied the allegations via a letter dated June 19, 2016, his termination followed advice received from senior counsel Elton Prescott that “adequate documented evidence” had been provided by the authority in respect of the allegations, except one which claimed Mahabir had used his office to grant approvals for the receipt of travelling allowances and leased motor vehicles by members of staff.

In Prescott’s letter to head of legal service Paula Fortune on March 6, 2017, Prescott confirmed that Mahabir, in a letter on November 17, 2016, had “repeated his request for greater specifics and other relevant details which he said would permit him to provide a complete response to the matters alleged.”

Prescott disclosed that Mahabir had “not condescended to accept (or to comment on) the authority’s indication that he may have access to its internal documents, under supervision.”

Among the allegations in the 74-page audit report was that Mahabir had failed to follow and/or establish procedures and practices for the recruitment and re-hiring of personnel, at a significant financial cost and burden on the authority, and/or the engagement of daily paid workers in 2014 and 2015 without requisite credentials.

Another allegation was that during the same period, he acted in breach of WASA’s mandate to reduce staff pursuant to a Voluntary Separation Package (VSEP) loan agreement with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and that he also allegedly misled the management, board and ministry with respect to manpower levels within the authority.

Other allegations claimed there was a lack of transparency in the selection criteria of staff in some areas, as 342 persons who did not possess the necessary qualifications, knowledge, skills or experience were appointed in an interim arrangement within the Operations Division, thereby leading to an increase in overall salary costs from $130,168,706.82 to $157,824,269.28.

Mahabir was also accused of authorising the payment of overtime forgone by the union officials of the National Union of Government Federated Workers’ (NUGFW) WASA section from January 2011 to December 2014, in the amount of $726,718, without seeking approval from the board and Human Resource Committee. Mahabir was also accused of retroactively approving the payments of additional commuted overtime hours and special project allowances to six members of the Public Service Association (PSA) WASA section between January 1, 2013, to December 31, 2015.

The audit alleged, “These allowances are in excess of those provided to employees of similar ranges and job description and has resulted in an increased monthly financial commitment to the authority of $31,135.61.” From January 2013 to December 2015, the excess allowance totalled $947,307.03. Furthermore, this allowance continued beyond December 2015 to July 2016, totalling $195,302.12.

Responding to the exclusive report yesterday, NUGFW president James Lambert said, “Workers do not give themselves overtime. Overtime is given by the management and the workers are expected to work during that period. The workers are not the ones to answer as to what overtime is given to them, they are required to provide a service and are paid for it, so we are not concerned about that.”

Also contacted, former public utilities minister Ganga Singh declined to comment on the matter, saying he was out of “the public life.”

Explaining that he had taken a step back from “the public domain” prior to the 2020 general election, Singh said while he had his own views, he was not willing to comment.

Calls to PSA president Watson Duke meanwhile went unanswered.

Former WASA chairman Romney Thomas, under whose tenure Mahabir would have been terminated, opted not to comment on the matter when contacted via cellphone yesterday.