Dr. Luncheon has grossly exceeded the powers of his office
Stabroek News
April 12, 2002

Related Links: Letters on stuff
Letters Menu Archival Menu

Dear Editor,

Dr. Roger Luncheon's written directive to the Minister responsible for Forestry, Sash Sawh, that the Forestry Commission pay a dismissed employee of the Commission, Dexter Cummings, $886,766.00 for work he never performed, in a post he never held, for a period of service he did not work, pension benefits and severance pay to which he is not legally entitled, is the most flagrant and frightening abuse of executive power in the name of the Office of the President to date. It has been exposed by a young senior administrative officer, Kamini Balram, Head of the Human Resources Division in the Commission, exercising her considered professional judgement in doing her job.

Ms Balram sent a memorandum on 17th March, 2002, to the Commissioner expressing her concern that the Head of the Presidential Secretariat's direction, which came via the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries, Crops and Livestock, "has patently bypassed structures and procedures that are established in the Commission that have been applied consistently and fairly to all staff."

Ms Balram's memo carefully documents:

- the fact that Dexter Cummings, a recipient of several GFC, PSM bonded scholarships, refused to accept the position offered him by demanding to be employed immediately as an Assistant Commissioner of Forest;

- the fact that after full and careful management review, he was, as a result, dismissed;

- the fact that the minister responsible for Forestry, Sash Sawh, improperly directed the Commissioner of Forests, James Singh, to rescind the decision;

- the fact that the Commission's board was advised by legal Counsel that the minister "had absolutely no power, right or duty, to order a rescission... or have same reviewed by a committee of his making;"

- the fact that, nevertheless, the GFC board appointed a sub-committee to review the dismissal and which supported the dismissal;

- the fact that the sub-committee included the presence of the GFC's Attorney, Khemraj Ramjattan and the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Fisheries, Crops and Livestock.

Ms Balram's memo also relates the fact that the GFC board decided to waive the breach of bond penalty of $2,074,404 by Cummings on his undertaking to accept another government appointment by the PSM, and the fact of Luncheon's first mistaken directive by letter of 30th January, 2002, that Cummings be released from all contractual obligations because he was not being `gainfully employed in the forestry sector', even though he was being employed as a forestry lecturer at the School of Agriculture.

Then came Luncheon's 1st March, 2002, letter to the minister directing that Cummings be granted payment and the several privileges to which he was not entitled and finally another Luncheon letter of 15th March, 2002, to the minister for the attention of the Permanent Secretary directing the Commission to remit a cheque of $886,766 to the Office of the President payment to Dexter Cummings.

Ms Balram's memo, in addition, points out that the sum of $886,766 is not provided for in the Commission's budget awaiting board approval. She advised Acting Commissioner, Godfrey Marshall, in the absence of Commissioner, James Singh, that she could not agree with the payment being made.

When the Head of Finance, Edward Goberdhan, balked at making the payment, Chairman Fries, without consulting his board, acting solely on Luncheon's direction and without executive authority, ordered him to do so.

Chairman Fries then directed that any discussion of Ms Balram's memo be removed from the board's agenda for its meeting on 20th March, 2002. However, individual members of the board in receipt of the memo, raised the matter and required the chairman to seek advice on the matter from the Commission's Counsel.

At 9:45 on the morning of the day that the GFC board was scheduled to meet, Kamini Balram was summoned before Roger Luncheon at the Office of the President in the presence of Fries, Marshall, Khellawan Lall and Robert Persaud and literally brow beaten, bullied and threatened with disciplinary action.

Standing her ground, Ms Balram insisted that she had properly and professionally done her job by advising as she did. She was directly threatened with disciplinary action of the board by Lall and admonished for challenging authority.

Kamini Balram is a member of the GFC's management. On what authority was she called before the Head of the Presidential Secretariat, admonished and threatened? Why did GFC chairman Fries lend his presence to this abuse of authority? In what capacity was Lall acting? If a board member, why was he the only board member invited? What was Robert Persaud doing at the meeting?

The GFC's legal counsel, Khemraj Ramjattan, on 2nd April, 2002, submitted his legal opinion on the matter for consideration of the GFC's board. Citing rulings by Chief Justice Carl Singh in the Guyana Revenue Authority (a similar autonomous statutory body to the GFC) case involving Clarence Chue, Ramjattan offers among his conclusions that:

- "Dr Roger Luncheon has absolutely no authority to give any instruction to the Guyana Forestry Commission."

- "the minister was wrong to so instruct the Commission to make payment."

- "Chairman Fries' conduct is highly questionable, troubling and ... wrongful and improper... there is no doubt that Mr Fries ought to step down as chairman and a Director, in the interest of all at the Commission, and, indeed, in the interest of the integrity of the Commission."

- "the conduct of the Permanent Secretary who is also a Director on the Forestry Commission, was most unprofessional."

This is a disgraceful episode. Allowed to go unchecked and unpunished, it will, if it has not already done so, destroy the procedural and financial foundation upon which good and transparent governance must be based. It leaves the door wide open to political interference. The issue here is not, as the Sunday Stabroek News of 7th April points out, whether Cummings has been wrong or not, it's for the court to decide that, it is that Roger Luncheon has grossly exceeded the powers of his office.

Dr. Luncheon's behaviour and his statements at his press conference of 3rd April, signal an arrogant disregard for the rules and regulations of the government he serves and suggests that he believes that as Head of the Office of the President, he can say and do as he pleases.

Luncheon does a terrible disservice to the President to whom he reports and the political party to whom he is beholden for the power and prestige he wields with such carelessness.

Kamini Balram is an extraordinary example of professional competence and courage rarely, if ever seen, in public office. As Khemraj Ramjattan wrote in his opinion:

"She did exactly as the law allowed. She should be congratulated for what she did and the Commission should be grateful."

But what will become of her? The HPS has done exactly as the law disallows, but because she has challenged his doing wrong, she has been privately and publicly threatened by Luncheon. As Ramjattan observes, those "embarrassed and shamed by this episode will want her jugular."

President Jagdeo's own integrity and credibility is at stake, thanks to his HPS, if he does nothing to correct this.

Will, as has almost always been the case in our short history of independence, the party in power close ranks, defend the indefensible and protect their own, or will its leadership display the gumption and guts it takes to do the right thing?

The country waits and watches.

Yours faithfully,

(name and address provided)