Chief Secretary: Duke’s THA role under review

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Chief Secretary Farley Augustine. Photo courtesy THA

THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine says the responsibilities under the purview of Deputy Chief Secretary Watson Duke is being reviewed and a decision will be made before the end of this weekend.

He made the announcement on Thursday at the post-Executive Council media briefing, saying there is a possibility Duke may be relieved of all of his responsibilities altogether.

Augustine’s announcement came hours after Duke posted a video on his Facebook page in which he slammed the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP)-led THA for not providing funding, outside of airfare, for members of the Roxborough Folk Performers, who were due to perform at several cultural events in New York, earlier this week.

As a result, he claimed the members of the group are stranded and hungry.

Duke is the PDP’s political leader and assemblyman for the Roxborough/Argyle electoral district. The party, which was founded in 2016, created history in the December 6, 2021, THA election, winning 14 of the 15 electoral districts in the THA.

Augustine said all of the PDP’s candidates, in the run-up to the election, were mandated to sign a code of conduct to operate in accordance with the law and standard principles.

He recalled that on the night when the code of conduct was signed, the biggest question was whether or not a chief secretary who is not a leader of a party will be able to discipline the leader should he or she fall out of line.

“I made it clear on that night, you could be leader, captain, cook or even crook. Once you are part of this team, I am holding you up by those standards. And so today I am holding the DCS (Deputy Chief Secretary) up by those standards.

“I want to make it very publicly clear that immediately post this press briefing, a review of the DCS’s portfolio and the areas assigned to him will be done and I assure you that before the end of the weekend you will get some press release indicating what the decision is in so far as treating with the unfortunate and ill-advised briefing of the DCS in New York that went very ultra to what the actual facts are,” he said.

Augustine said several of Duke’s assignments as DCS remain incomplete.

“So that review certainly is within my purview as your chief secretary because I am the only person authorised by law at this moment to decide what responsibilities are given to which secretaries… By tomorrow, I will let you know which responsibilities he will have, if any at all.”

In the video on Wednesday, which he claimed was made outside of the Peterkin Hotel, 95, Chester Street, Brooklyn, Duke said, “I have come here to the aid of some 27 Tobagonians from a Roxborough folk group that came to Brooklyn with the aid of the Tobago House of Assembly to perform and to represent Tobago and our culture.”

Duke claimed the members of the group were not provided for.

“Beyond the ticket when the land they were treated as thieves, as slaves, as castaways. There were no transportation to rally them and take them form the airport to a chosen specific destination. They came on the streets of New York, trying to find a place to sleep, tired, weary, feeling emasculated and mentally broken.”He further claimed they stayed in a basement for several days “with dead rats, hungry and forgotten by the Tobago House of Assembly.

“I say forgotten because inspite calls were made to the base, the Tobago House of Assembly, stating things not so alright, what can be done. Nothing has been done.”

Duke said a Tobagonian, living in New York, assisted the group members with temporary accommodation at a hotel.

“He would have utilised his cash, after four to five days and paid for the 27 of them to have proper housing “

Claiming the members of the group were hungry and in desperate need of food, Duke called on “those who consider themselves to be decision-makers, those who consider themselves to be the hotshots in the THA, the policy makers and the drivers of the system, to act wisely.”

He demanded, “Show Tobagonians that you care about them and send money via Western Union, whatever means, make whatever arrangement to ensure these persons are fed…Make whatever call you have to make.”

But at the post Executive Council media briefing, Augustine described Duke’s video as “unfortunate and ill-advised,” saying he had spoken comprehensively to him on the matter.

Setting the record straight, Augustine confirmed that the Roxborough Folk Performers approached the THA for financial assistance because they were called out to perform at several engagements in and around the tri-state area in New York for Labour Day.

He said the THA had no qualms about helping the group since it “marries nicely with our push for engaging and involving members of the diaspora.”

Augustine said he met with Vernella Alleyne-Toppin (former government minister), who leads the group, about two months ago. Three other members were also present.

He said Alleyne-Toppin told him the group wanted help with airline tickets to get to New York. But some members had visa challenges and only got through last week.

Augustine said some left on Saturday and others on Sunday.

“The timelines were so tight there was no way the THA could have issued any cheques for their departure and in any case this administration has a policy where we prefer to pay invoices as opposed to just giving monies to groups.”

He said because the timelines were so short, the THA had to give a promisory note to the travel agency to eventually settle the bill in order for the group to be able to leave Trinidad.

Augustine said before the team left, Alleyne-Toppin assured the THA that she had their accommodation booked and everything was in place for where they were to stay.

But he said on Sunday he received word from the president of the Tobago Day organising team in New York that the group arrived but could not get on to the host of a bed and breakfast at which they were supposed to stay. They eventually stayed at a church for the night.

“Notwithstanding that, I said to this group that we cannot fund all of your exploits in the US but we can’t allow Tobagonians to sleep on the streets.”

He said he worked out an arrangement with the president of the team to provide some accomodation for them. This came up to US$9,000.

They had someone pay it in the US and the THA would refund them.

He made it clear the THA did not send the group but sponsored a part of their trip to the US.

“The flight and their accommodation in New York, everything so far cost up to $400, 417.50. So this is a $400,000 commitment from the THA to this single group.”

Augustine said Duke called around 5.30 pm on Wednesday while they were winding up the executive council meeting.

He said Duke complained that some of the members were unable to purchase food.

Saying he had explained the situation to Duke, Augustine said he was surprised to see his video clip.

“He made it seem as if the THA has been wicked and punishing this group was certainly surprising given that we had a conversation just as the executive council meeting was coming to an end.”

He said any additional funding could not come from the THA coffers “because we just do not have that kind of facility for that kind of emergency spend.”

Augustine said he could not understand how a deputy chief secretary could mount a public platform and make statements that go against the facts of the matter.

“I cannot attest to what motivated this. In fact, I don’t even care to theorise about what motivated this. But one thing I know for sure is that so long as I am here as chief secretary there is one chief secretary in the space, one leader in the space. there is one team is one team in the space and we move as a team and we will be taking decisions in accordance with what the law says. Full stop.”

Commenting on the issue, THA Minority Leader Kelvon Morris said while Duke has chosen to speak out about the challenges of 27 Tobagonians on a trip to New York, “he is complicit in facilitating the injustice to ordinary Tobagonians right here in Tobago.”

Morris again claimed the administration has terminated the employment of over 200 Tobagonians in less than a year while hundreds are unable to get basic social assistance.

He noted several of the island’s main contractors on the island are also owed outstanding money which the THA has not yet paid.

“So the unfortunate reality in Tobago at this time is that while Mr Duke is seeking to score internal political points and perhaps is attempting to send a direct political message to his counterparts in the PDP indicating that he is unhappy, the people of Tobago are left with no choice but to survive the incompetence of the PDP for another four years and the change the people of Tobago hoped for on December 6, 2021 remains unfulfilled,” he told Newsday.