Blessings from Balisier House

Gift’s letter is one of a series of seemingly peculiar recruitment practices at the Consulate General of Trinidad and Tobago at New York, where several members of staff were recruited over a period of years though no proof of authorisation to work in the United States was ever produced, according to Ministry of Foreign Affairs correspondence.

Gift’s letter, dated August 3, 2005, was addressed to then Consul General Dr Harold Robertson. On paper bearing the Coat of Arms and the header of the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gift referred to apparent “conversations” over the recruitment of staff. Gift wrote, “Dear Consul General, This is a follow-up to previous conversations regarding the employment of Mr Terrence Gregory Lewis at the Consulate General, New York.” The Minister in charge of the Foreign Service then stated this appointment came with the stamp of approval of PNM headquarters.

“Mr Lewis’ recommendation for employment at the Consulate General comes with the blessing of the hierarchy at Balisier House,” Senator Gift wrote. “Mr Lewis’ resume is attached.”

There is no further elaboration in the letter, which is then signed, “Yours sincerely, Knowlson W. Gift, Minister of Foreign Affairs.”

The letter was faxed to the New York Consulate with a cover sheet reading, “Urgent” on the afternoon of August 3, 2005, and was sent alongside another letter of the same date from Gift relating to the employment of another worker, Angeline Ramlal.

Gift’s letter approving Ramlal’s appointment was worded differently. It read, “Dear Consul General, This will confirm previous conversations on the above and to indicate to you that you may now proceed with the appointment of Ms Angeline Ramlal as a replacement for Ms Jocelyn McCloud. With best regards. Yours sincerely, Knowlson W. Gift.” Ramlal is one of eight persons whose contract of employment with the Consulate was not renewed in 2012 when the term of her temporary contract expired. Lewis - whose appointment came, according to Gift, “with the blessing of the hierarchy of Balisier House” is to date still employed at the Consulate sources there report.

The issue of the termination of the eight persons last year at the Consulate was last week reported to be headed for legal action at the Industrial Court.

The “Gift” letter citing Balisier House blessings is just one of many strange incidents involving the Consulate at 125 Maiden Lane, New York. Correspondence sent to Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Margaret Parillon, detail instances where persons were employed and kept on employment without authorisation to work in the US. In one instance, staff swore to seeing authorisation, even before the actual authorisation existed.

A July 2012 report sent to Parillon by current Consul General Rudrawatee Nan Ramgoolam — which has been obtained by Sunday Newsday — states that of the eight persons whose terms of contract had come to an end last year, three did not fulfill the normal requirements for eligibility for work in the US.

For instance, Ramlal — whose employment was the subject of the “urgent” letter of approval from Gift in 2005 — was “initially hired on a B1/B2 USA visa (visitor category) in 2005 without authorisation to work. Subsequently, the Consul General at the time then pursued a change in visa status to A2 (government visa category).”

Ramlal was employed since August 15, 2005. A two-year contract she later entered into expired on August 18, 2011. She was then placed on a temporary six-month employment contract. Her contract was not renewed.

But things were far stranger in relation to Ashton Hosford, a security officer employed since August 1, 1994. The report of the Consul General states, “Personnel file provides no evidence that authorisation for employment in the USA was proffered to the Consulate General except for the period December 27, 2005 to December 26, 2006.”

However, “it is noted that in his personnel file that he presented an employment authorisation card from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services valid from December 27, 2005, to December 26, 2006. However the then Consul, Administration (name not called), in a file note indicated that she saw the original of the Employment Authorisation Card on May 10, 2005, seven months prior to the validity date of the document.”

Hosford’s most recent contract, a two-year contract entered into in March 2010, expired on March 10, 2012. He was then placed on a temporary five-month contract which was not renewed.

Another employee among the eight, Michael Braithwaite, was employed since September 10, 1990. But, the Consul General, in the report to Parillon dated July 25, 2012, remarked that, “personnel file provides no evidence that authorisation for employment in the USA was proffered to the Consulate General.” Like Hosford, Braithwaite entered a two-year contract in March 2010 which expired on March 7, 2012. He was then placed on a temporary five-month contract before termination.

The termination of the employment of the eight employees has been the subject of allegations and counter-allegations of racism and political victimisation and has been raised repeatedly by the Opposition PNM in Parliament and elsewhere.

In addition to the report stating that three of the eight persons who were terminated did not have valid work authorisations, the report also states that two others among the terminated group were, in fact, first hired under the current administration in 2011 and 2012.

According to the Consul’s report, also signed by other officers at the diplomatic post, April Sturgeon was hired as a leave officer on October 4, 2011, with the required authorisation to work in the USA. Charmaine Anderson-Smith was hired as a temporary clerical officer on January 3, 2012, with authorisation to work. Both were terminated pursuant to a policy of restructuring, the Consul said. The documents state that the Cabinet-approved number of staff, dating from a Cabinet decision in 2005, was supposed to be 16, but in fact there were 23 persons employed, or roughly seven over the authorised number.

According to a separate report, dated July 19, 2012 and also signed by the Consul, there was notice of this restructuring exercise since August 2011.

“Locally recruited staff were notified of the requirement to undergo a written examination on March 5, 2012,” the Consul reported, in a document also signed by other officers. “They were aware of the restructuring exercise since the general staff meeting on August 12, 2011 (Consul, Administration was in charge of the mission at the time) and subsequent staff meetings held on November 7, 2011; December 2011; March 2, 2012; and April 10, 2012.”

Positions were advertised internally and externally, as per ministry policy. Short-listed external applicants and all incumbents had to undergo a written exam and interview, attain a 50 percent score in both, had to show proof of authorisation to work in the USA, and undergo a police background check. All applicants (new and incumbents) were advised of the interview on March 5, 2012. The Consul General recused herself from preparation of examination questions and model answers and the conducting of the examination, as well as the interview process. Interviews were held on April 2, 2012, April 3, 2012 and April 4, 2012, at the Consulate.

The Counsul General was part of the team which marked and scored exam scripts. The scripts, however, were marked “blindly”, meaning the person being examined was not identified. All that appeared on scripts was an identification number. Seventeen applicants topped the merit list which was drawn up considering scores and the criteria. The list comprised nine incumbents and eight new applicants. Candidates were ranked.

According to the Consul, the contract terms of staff on temporary contracts stated that one day’s notice constituted adequate notice. At the end of the entire exercise, termination letters were issued on July 5, 2012, and July 6, 2012. The affected staff were escorted out of the office by Consul, Security, “to protect the integrity of the Consulate General property and information.” Also terminated was: Susan Butcher-David, employed since 2000 as a clerical officer, whose two-year contract which she entered into in 2009, expired in December 2011. She was placed on a six-month temporary contract prior to the termination.

Judy Greaves, employed since 2007, was employed as a temporary clerical officer. Cherylann Etienne, employed as a temporary clerical officer, worked at the Consulate General since 2009.

The Consul, Rudrawatee Nan Ramgoolam, when contacted by Sunday Newsday last week said, “I have to be responsible with how the State’s resources are spent and we have followed all of the proper rules and processes. We have simply been following ministry policy. I have been a career public service officer for 38 years and I cannot stand for the rules being broken. People were in the past being hired who were not authorised to work and I will not allow myself to be the one to permit the breaching of the rules and laws of Trinidad and Tobago and of the host country the United States.”


"Blessings from Balisier House"

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