The Dereck Foster-led board of the state-owned agricultural marketing agency has suspended its Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
Dr Brian Francis.
In a memorandum dated March 8, 2021, the chairman of the Barbados Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (BADMC) informed all staff that Francis – who has been only on the job for eight months – will be unavailable to carry out the duties of Chief Executive Officer with effect from today.
While the memo from Foster did not give any reason for the board decision or how long Francis would be away from work, he told the employees that Director of Finance and Accounts, Frederick Inniss will perform the duties of CEO in the interim.
“Please give Mr Inniss your full support during this period,” the chairman concluded.
When Barbados TODAY reached out to Francis at his home, he confirmed his suspension and said “allegations of misconduct” was said to be the basis for the action.
Francis, who said he will be on suspension with full pay “until further notice” told Barbados TODAY the board has informed him this was to allow them to investigate the allegations which he claimed, have not been provided to him.
Asked what was his next step he said: “I am awaiting advice from my legal counsel. It is madness, pure madness…so we shall see where this goes.”
This is the latest twist to an ongoing controversy between the board and the CEO.
At the centre of the controversy is the board’s recent decision to settle a claim made by a former temporary employee to the tune of just over $7,000 for alleged breach of contract.
Of particular concern, according to the CEO and highlighted in a letter to the chairman dated March 5, 2021, is that the board agreed to pay the money to the terminated employee Akelia Roberts against the advice of the BADMC’s two attorneys-at-law whose position was that the former clerical officer was not entitled to the monies.
In the four-page letter copied to Prime Minister Mia Mottley, Minister of Agriculture and Food Security Indar Weir, Minister in that ministry Peter Phillips and to the board directors, Francis let chairman Foster know he was in “complete opposition” to a directive given to him to pay the money.
“It is with a deep sense of concern and disbelief that I write to you in total and complete opposition to a directive issued to me as the chief operating officer, BADMC by the board of directors at its 214th board meeting held via Zoom on Thursday, March 4, 2021, to pay to Ms Akelia Roberts the sum of $7,014.93 for alleged breach of her employment contract with the BADMC,” the CEO declared in the correspondence, a copy of which has been obtained by Barbados TODAY.
He went on to state that the directive to pay the woman emerged from a recommendation by the Human Resources Sub-Committee of the board, chaired by Leadership Development Specialist Dr Jeannine Comma and including board member Edwin O’Neal and newly-appointed Chief Agricultural Officer Keely Holder.
“Upon receipt of that email message from Dr Comma, you, chairman, wrote to me instructing me to make the payment based on the recommendation from Dr Comma. I replied immediately to you, chairman, expressing the view that the instructions issued to me by you to pay Ms Roberts was untenable,” the correspondence stated.
He continued: “At its 214th board meeting, Dr Comma presented the HR Sub-Committee’s recommendation to the board, which, after little discussion, was approved by the board.
“The CEO, as you may recall, chairman, attempted to raise objection to the decision of the board, but the CEO was told that ‘the board has made a decision and therefore you cannot intervene to object’. The CEO had no further comment to make on the matter at the board meeting,” he stated in his letter to the chairman.
In an email to the chairman dated March 3, 2021, Dr Comma outlined the HR Committee’s reason for recommending that Roberts be paid the money.
She recalled that when the matter was first raised at a board meeting, the CEO informed directors that the woman was dismissed because she ran afoul of discipline.
“At that meeting, Mr O’Neal informed the board then that it was his understanding that Ms Roberts was in possession of a green paper that stated there was ‘insufficient work to justify her continued employment’.”
The committee head said those two statements are in conflict ‘and since there was a written official document, a further inquiry would seriously damage the credibility of the CEO.”
“It is also our opinion that such a situation would cause significant embarrassment to the BADMC and it is against that backdrop that the committee recommended at the last board meeting held on February 22nd, that Ms Roberts should be paid for the remainder of the contract in order to avoid adverse fallout,” Dr Comma declared.
She said that at no time was the CEO authorized to seek a legal opinion on a matter which had not exhausted the industrial relations content.
“We have to underline that at all times, ‘government agencies’ must always appear to be above board and be a model employer.
“Accordingly, the committee stands by its recommendation to the board and respectfully submits that there be no further delay in executing the will of the board,” Dr Comma wrote in her email, a copy of which has also been obtained by Barbados TODAY.
Francis also expressed alarm that a director demanded that the cheque for Ms Roberts be made available to her by 10 a.m. on Friday March 5, 2021.
“The board accepted and approved that demand and subsequently directed the CEO to ensure that the payment was done by the time and date demanded by the board director.
“Surprisingly, [Board member’s name withheld] volunteered to go to the BADMC on Friday, March 5, 2021 at 10 a.m. or soon thereafter to personally collect the cheque on behalf of Ms Roberts.
“What is shocking about the decision taken by the board and the directives issued to me to make the payment to Ms Roberts, is that the board took the decision and issued the directive to me to make the payment with the full knowledge of two legal opinions from attorneys who work on behalf of the BADMC that clearly explained why Ms Roberts should not be paid,” Francis wrote.
In a five-page letter to the CEO dated March 1, 2021, attorney Patrick Phillips wrote in part: “In view of the foregoing legal principles enunciated by the Privy Council decision, it is my opinion that the corporation’s termination of the employee’s contract of employment by its letter dated 29th October 2020, was a lawful exercise of its contractual right under the contract. Consequently, therefore, the employee has no legal entitlement to the amount claimed or any sum from the BADMC.”
The other attorney, Liesel Weekes, sent a three-page legal opinion dated February 22, 2021 to the Human Resources Manager and concluded that “on the basis of those documents [Roberts’ letter of engagement, termination letter, termination and lay off certificate and letter of claim] it is clear that Ms Roberts has and can have no statutory claim for compensation against the corporation…Ms Roberts would likely only be entitled to damages from the corporation for breach of contract calculated on the basis of one day’s remuneration.”
“How, chairman, in light of those two legal opinions, can the board still direct that Ms Roberts be paid over $7,000 of tax payers’ money by the BADMC?” the CEO asked in his letter.
Francis suggested that the “extreme” decision taken by the board to pay the terminated clerical officer over $7,000 against the two legal opinions, “makes Thursday, March 4, 2021, a sad and unfortunate day for the BADMC, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, the Cabinet of Barbados that appointed the board and the people and Government of Barbados.”
In her written claim to the board dated November 10, 2020, Roberts referred to her letter of termination dated October 29, 2020 which she contended prematurely ended her services as clerical officer “with immediate effect”.
“Please be reminded that I was offered a contract of employment in which it was stated that my period of employment was from August 4, 2020 to January 31, 2021. Your decision to terminate me before the expiration of that period represents a breach of contract. Accordingly, I am therefore calling on you to pay me the sum of $7,014.93 of which represents payment for the unexpired part of my contract,” she wrote.
An email from the chairman, who has been heading the board for the past nine months, told Francis: “Please see the comments from Dr Comma as head of the HR committee. Please ensure you carry out their instructions and pay Ms Roberts to end of the contract as they instructed.”
Barbados TODAY reached out to Roberts this afternoon but she said she had no comment to make and when asked to respond to the issue at hand, chairman Foster replied: “I have told you before, I don’t discuss board issues with the Press, don’t you understand English? I told you I do not discuss the BADMC with the Press. I don’t get it…what is it that you don’t understand?”
Minister of Agriculture Indar Weir was unavailable. However, minister in that ministry Peter Phillips said the issue was being dealt with by the board.
“I am not in a position to speak to that matter. The board runs the BADMC not the ministers. It’s an internal matter… the board is dealing with it and I am not commenting on it at this point in time,” Phillips insisted.
The current board has four months to go before its three-year tenure expires.([email protected])