Duke, PSA fined $35,000 for not complying with court order

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Former Public Services Association (PSA) president Watson Duke

FORMER Public Services Association (PSA) president Watson Duke escaped serving a nine-month term of imprisonment for contempt arising out of a failure to abide by certain court orders during his leadership of the trade union.

Instead, Duke and the PSA were ordered to pay fines of $35,000 each.

The ruling was delivered by Justice Devindra Rampersad on March 26, when he found the PSA and Duke liable for not complying with court orders made on January 21, 2020. The orders were part of his ruling in a lawsuit brought a year earlier by five members of the PSA – Curtis Cuffie, Demetrius Harrison, Annisha Persad, Curtis Meade, and Duaine Hewitt – over financial irregularities and a failure to hold non-executive elections.

After the judge ruled in favour of the five, Cuffie and Hewitt filed the contempt application, alleging the court’s orders had not been followed.

The action was brought against the union, Duke, former PSA general secretary Shalene Suchit-Dwarika, and the union’s then-trustees Dawn Garcia and Caray Price.

PSA president Leroy Baptiste –who replaced Duke after he resigned in late 2021 – first vice president Felisha Thomas, general secretary Kellon Wallace, deputy general secretary Ria Ralph-Watson, and trustee Kebba Thatcher were then added to the application.

In his ruling, Rampersad said there would be no useful purpose in imposing a sentence of imprisonment on Duke, since he was no longer president of the PSA.

“However, for almost two years, under his watch, he did not take the affirmative steps that were necessary to ensure compliance with the order and to show deference and respect to an order of the court and the due process of the law.

“What was done was in this court’s respectful view wholly, and woefully, insufficient.

“Directing his officers to comply without ensuring that compliance all the while managing and controlling the first defendant without the benefit of a properly constituted general council and without the oversight of the annual general conference over the course of two years despite this court’s order is highly reprehensible.”

Rampersad added, “The second defendant has moved on leaving the order incomplete while knowing fully well that he was a named party against whom an order was made directly rather than indirectly through the first defendant.”

He also said Duke had shown no remorse to the court, nor did he explain his failure to ensure compliance. Instead, the judge said, he “passed off his responsibility to the tenth defendant who was obligated to follow his direction but did not complete the act…

“Therefore, it stands, having regard to all of the circumstances, that the second defendant is equally liable as the first defendant for the failure.

The judge was also critical of explanations of why the court’s orders were not followed, in particular the failure to hold the annual general conference and section elections.

“This was not an ordinary situation of laissez-faire ‘come-what-may-whenever-I will do it when I get to it,’ but it was one that was imposed by an order of the court. Every effort should have been made at 100 per cent to ensure compliance.”

While the failure to hold the annual general conference was attributed to the covid19 pandemic and lookdown measures, the judge said the PSA could have applied for a stay or variation of the orders.

“The covid19 pandemic and lockdown were not an excuse. The general council did not stop operating in its arguably defective state over the pandemic and lockdown period and expenditure continued over that period as far as the court understands.”

“Continuing to have meetings of the general council virtually without addressing the legal ramifications and responsibilities of compliance with an order of the court is clearly contemptuous of the rule of law and is detrimental to the administration of justice.

“It sends a message that business goes on as usual for expenditure, which may or may not be extraordinary, such as the replacement of the president’s vehicle, regardless of an order of the court.

“This court cannot countenance such a flagrant disregard of its order.”

The judge, although critical of Duke and the PSA, said since the others were acting as officers of the union and not in their personal capacities, he was not willing to hold them personally liable for the breach of the orders.

Duke and the PSA were ordered to pay the fines by April 16. They were also ordered to pay Cuffie and Hewitt’s costs, along with one of its former executive members.

Cuffie and Hewitt were ordered to pay the costs of six of the eight PSA’s executives named in the contempt action.

In a release, the association said it was satisfied with the outcome.

“The association expresses its gratitude to the court for swiftly dismissing these spurious allegations brought against its current executive by the claimants,” it said.

“With this legal matter put to rest, the PSA can channel its energies entirely toward serving its members and advancing the objectives of the organisation.”

However, Cuffie and Hewitt took issue with the union’s release, saying it did not paint a complete picture of the judge’s findings.

They were represented by attorney Raisa Caesar. The PSA, Duke, Suchit-Dwarika, Garcia and Price were represented by Rajiv Persad, SC, John Heath, SC, Lionel Luckhoo, Sheldon Mycoo and Danelle Singh. Ralph-Watson was represented by Brian Camejo.