Judge throws out AG’s lawsuit against Watson Duke

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Watson Duke.

WATSON Duke is no longer a defendant in the AG’s interpretation claim over his appointment as deputy chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) while still head of the Public Service Association (PSA).

Justice Margaret Mohammed struck out the AG’s claim against Duke on Friday, saying he was not properly joined as a party to the proceedings.

She did make him an interested party, as she said, “The facts which triggered the claim were his conduct and he has an interest in the court’s findings.” As an interested party, Duke will not be exposed to paying costs as, she said, he can excise his option not to make any submissions.

Shortly after the December 6 Tobago House of Assembly elections, former attorney general Faris Al-Rawi filed the interpretation claim asking the court to determine whether a secretary in the assembly was entitled to engage in activities as president of the PSA and the Registration Recognition and Certification Board (RRCB).

The claim also seeks to have the court interpret the Industrial Relations Act and the Integrity in Public Life Act as they relate to Duke’s position as head of the PSA.

The AG’s claim contends Duke receives remuneration from the PSA and the RRCB. The latter falls under the Ministry of Labour and deals exclusively with the recognition of a trade union by an employer and matters related to this.

The action was filed against the THA, Duke and THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine, all of whom filed separate applications to have the AG’s claim struck out or dismissed on the ground that it was an abuse of process.

In her ruling, Mohammed struck out the claim against Duke, but dismissed the applications of the THA and Augustine, saying in her opinion there was a “live issue to be determined” as there was a period when Duke held the position of deputy Chief Secretary, president of the PSA and member of the RRCB from December 9-31.

She said a determination of the live issue of the overlap would clarify whether Duke could be a member of the RRCB and deputy Chief Secretary from December 9, 2021, until his resignation, and whether the RRCB was still liable to pay his salary for that period.

Mohammed also said having the matter go forward will also determine whether it was permissible for Duke to hold office as PSA president while appointed Deputy Chief Secretary during the period December 9-31, 2021.

“The finding on this live issue in the substantive claim would impact on the second defendant’s rights, duties and obligations as Deputy Chief Secretary during the said period.”

She also said the AG’s claim will only proceed as it relates to Duke and not two other assistant secretaries, Joel Sampson and Nigel Taitt, as the State failed properly to plead any case against them.

Sampson was appointed assistant secretary for the Division of Infrastructure, Quarries and Urban Development and Taitt assistant secretary for the Division of Food Security, Natural Resources, the Environment and Sustainable Development.

The State argued that Augustine, as Chief Secretary, breached the THA Act by appointing the two while they were still employed with WASA and the Port Authority respectively. Sampson is the deputy presiding officer of the assembly.

The judge gave directions for filing submissions in the substantive claim and said she will give her decision at a virtual hearing on July 22.

In support of the striking-out application, Duke’s lead attorney, Anand Ramlogan, SC, argued the claim against his client was a “legal adventure to nowhere.” He also argued that Duke had resigned from both the PSA and the RRCB.

The issue raised in the claim arose after Duke’s Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) won a landslide victory in the December 6 THA election. Augustine gave him a three-month ultimatum to sever ties with the union, but Al-Rawi suggested he should step down immediately.

In a press release issued when the case was filed, the AG’s Office said it had received inquiries from the board and the Chief Personnel Officer (CPO) over the issue.

It said before filing the interpretation application, it received advice from several senior counsel who “all agreed that there was an issue to be decided by the court.”

It noted that the application was not intended to “unseat the election” of candidates to the THA’s assembly or executive council.

“It merely seeks to clarify the law in the THA Act, as well as the Integrity in Public Life Act, Chap. 22:01, regarding the prohibition against a secretary of the THA and a person in public life, engaging in activities which would be in conflict with his duties as a secretary,” it said. “The court’s ultimate ruling will certainly assist in the maintenance of confidence in the THA and will avoid unwanted challenges that may be taken against any and/or decisions taken and/or made by the executive council thereby ensuring transparency and protecting against challenges of unlawfulness.”

Duke was also represented by attorneys Kent Samlal, Jared Jagroo, Natasha Bisram and Vishaal Siewsaran.

Representing the AG are Senior Counsel Fyard Hosein, Rishi Dass, Kerwyn Garcia, Tenille Ramkissoon, Hillary Muddeen, and Kadine Matthews.

The THA and Augustine were represented by Senior Counsel Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, John Jeremie, Kiel Taklalsingh and Lesley Gray.

The RRCB is now represented by Vanessa Gopaul and Ryan Grant. Previously, the RRCB’s legal team was led by Reginald Armour, SC, who replaced Al-Rawi as AG on March 17.

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