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Charges of politics, deception on NHT board

BY BALFORD HENRY Observer senior reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, April 06, 2014    

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AN intriguing tale of politics and deception has been showing through the cracks within the board of the National Housing Trust (NHT), following the recent departure of former managing director Cecile Watson.

Four members of the board resigned their positions within the space of a week late last month, and it would be no surprise if other resignations follow, as rifts between chairman Easton Douglas, a former People's National Party member of parliament and Cabinet minister, and some board members widen over various issues.

The four members of the 16-man board who have resigned are: Rev Oliver Daley, banker Minna Israel, economist Dr Davidson Daway, and attorney-at-law Deborah Martin.

Although only one of the four, Dr Daway, has publicly given reasons for resigning, it is generally felt that the resignations were triggered by their objections to the removal of Watson, a Barbadian-born banker, engineer and consultant and former director at FirstCaribbean International Bank (Jamaica) Ltd, before joining the NHT.

Currently, the rest of the board consists of academic Robert Buddan; Jamaica Employers' Federation Chief Executive Officer, Brenda Cuthbert; businessmen Percival LaTouche and Norman Horne; civil servant Sonia Hyman; trade unionists Lambert Brown, Vincent Morrison, Senator Kavan Gayle, Helene Davis-Whyte and Oneil Grant; and acting managing director Martin Miller, who had been senior general manager of finance, under Watson.

After being sent on two weeks suspension, while the board performed an audit on her conduct, following charges of excessive spending of funds on renovating the NHT office in New Kingston, Watson's suspension was twice extended, by two weeks and four weeks, respectively.

After the audit was completed, the chairman acquired the services of attorney-at-law Senator KD Knight, to settle the issue, as there seemed to be insufficient evidence to dismiss Watson.

The Jamaica Observer understands that Knight and Watson's lawyers, Hart, Muirhead and Fatta, sought to reach a settlement on the basis of a "no cause termination", but this fell through when the Trust refused to pay her legal expenses, although she was an employee of the company at the time of the dispute. That matter is now at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security for conciliation.

At one stage, Watson seemed to have had the support of the four women on the board. However, only two - Israel and Martin - resigned although it is felt that she still enjoys the support of the other two. The women gave no reasons for their resignations, publicly.

One of the four resigning board members told the Sunday Observer that Watson's removal was part of a programme to purge the board. He said that after the report of the audit was read by Knight, the board members demanded their own copies.

"They had to hustle and get us the report. When we read the report, on the front page it stated, 'we are going to purge the Trust of all undesirables'. How could an auditor be writing that kind of information?"

He said that initially there were charges that Watson could not be trusted because she had been appointed under the previous government. However, it was later revealed that a company had been retained by the previous administration to find a managing director, and she was chosen from a field of applicants.

But, despite that, a member of the board insisted that something had to be done about her because, as he said, "I don't think she is working in the interest of the NHT," the board member said.

"We didn't see the need to go back into her past under a previous administration. Was that our remit, to try and set up people like that? Why the need to search her past? She was serving the board and our job was take it from there and move on," he said.

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