Tea promoting officer in hot water!

31 July 2020 04:47 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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De Alwis was instrumental in opening Tea Bureaus in Japan and Poland by convincing the Minister how much profits the country could obtain

A request was made from the ministry seeking approval not to recover it personally from De Alwis

But, De Alwis said that he was discharging his duties in Dubai when this unfortunate incident took place

The appointment was limited to a period of six months ending July 31, 2018

 

Astonishing revelations underscore how Sri Lanka Tea Board (SLTB), the promoter of Pure Ceylon Tea around the globe, has entrusted global tea promotional activities of the world’s renowned brand to an officer alleged to have been involved in misappropriating SLTB funds a few years ago.


SLTB Chairman Jayampathy Molligoda and the Board of Directors have allowed this officer, whose service contract lapsed on May 15.  He was expected to continue in office with his extension pending approval from the Ministry.


Although the Board has allowed him to continue in office his allowances and remuneration had to be withheld following a petition that was sent to the Election Commission in this regard.
Secretary Ministry of Plantation Industries and Export Agriculture Ravindra Hewawitharana confirmed with the Daily Mirror that the Ministry hadn’t extended the contract of Hasitha de Alwis’ as of now. However there has been a request to extend his contract. 


SLTB has come under severe criticism for getting back the former Director Promotions for the Middle East and North American region Hasitha de Alwis to serve as Director Promotions on contract and later as a Consultant. This is despite his alleged involvement in misappropriating company finances. He is accused of continuously failing to promote Ceylon Tea globally.

 

According to SLTB employees, this officer who was recruited in the capacity of Consultant Global Tea Promotional Campaign has failed to show his competency during his tenure


After his retirement in October 2017, he was taken back on an assignment basis to perform duties in promotion campaigns; to be implemented to promote Ceylon Tea globally. He was expected to serve in the post of Director (Promotions) from February 1, 2018. Though there are no records at the SLTB as to who recommended him to the Minister for the said post, the Cabinet on March 20, 2018, has granted approval for the appointment of De Alwis to the said post and his appointment was backdated to be effective from February 1, 2018.  


This newspaper is in possession of details related to the cabinet decision taken on March 20, 2018. The decision revolves around a cabinet memorandum being submitted by the Minister of Plantation Industries to obtain the service of A. H. de Alwis on an assignment basis to perform duties related to the promotion campaign to be implemented to promote Ceylon Tea globally. He is also to serve in the post of Director (Promotions) Sri Lanka Tea Board. Hence the cabinet of ministers has granted approval to re-employ De Alwis with effect from February 1, 2018, limiting it for a period of six months. His package included a monthly allowance of Rs.200,000, an official vehicle with a driver and a fuel allowance of 120 litres. 

 

  Plantation Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana has made a request from the Chairman to extend his contract  


Although the appointment was limited to a period of six months ending July 31, 2018, his term in office has once again been extended and in 2019, he was appointed as a Special Professional Tea Promotion Consultant to the Global Tea Promotion campaign of the SLTB for one year, the period concluding on May 15, 2020. However after his contract lapsed on May 15, 2020, the present Chairman Jayampathy Molligoda is said to have sent a request to the Ministry of Plantations to renew the contract for him to serve till December 31, 2020. But it’s learned as of now that the Tea Board has not received a letter from the Ministry extending his contract. 


However, Hasitha de Alwis refuted the allegations against him and added that Chairman Jayampathy Molligoda once requested an extension for him. Plantation Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana has made a request from the Chairman to extend his contract till the end of December.  Assurance has been given that Cabinet approval would be obtained for this endeavour after the General Elections.


“The request letter had been sent to the Ministry before the COVID-19 lockdown and since the minister cannot grant an extension during an election time, the Chairman has been asked to extend the contract with the understanding that cabinet approval would be granted after the General Elections. 


Even though the Board of Directors extended my contract from May 15 up to December 31, 2020, I have not been paid my monthly salary and other allowances to date. I have informed this to the Chairman and he has spoken to Minister Dr. Pathirana personally. The Minister has wanted the Chairman to submit a Board paper to which he will get the covering approval,” De Alwis said.


Although De Alwis said so, the Chief Accounting Officer, Ravindra Hewawitharana said that the Ministry hasn’t granted such approval to the Tea Board.


“Unless approval is granted by the Ministry, the Board of Directors cannot extend the contract of a consultant,” Hewawitharana said. 


When asked whether the ministry makes appointments to any of the higher post without considering his/ her past records, Hewawitharana said that such candidates are not appointed to any high post.


“We do not have records of each and every person. It is the sole responsibility of the Board of Directors to provide us with accurate past records of individuals whose names are recommended. I have received complaints about the person you are referring to, but have not taken any action so far,” the Ministry Secretary said. 


According to SLTB employees, this officer who was recruited in the capacity of Consultant Global Tea Promotional Campaign has failed to show his competency during his tenure. He was serving as Director Promotions for the Middle East and North American regions.

 


Past records disregarded
“On what basis was he recruited as a consultant? It is not because of his capabilities. He was appointed as a consultant though records show that he was not successful in any of his missions. In 2016 he was found fault with as per the two investigation reports. However due to his close link with the then Plantation Minister Navin Dissanayake, his past records had been disregarded and he granted a ‘reward’,” sources told the Daily Mirror.  


Refuting the claim, Hasitha de Alwis there wasn’t such a move and queried as to how such a post can be created when the Tea Board is not marketing any brand, but only promotes the brand- Ceylon Tea?


De Alwis was accused of submitting account details of the Saudi HORECA Trade Fair Organizers to the SLTB accounts division to remit US$ 6300 for a space reservation at the trade fair during his tenure in the permanent carder as the Director Promotions for the Middle East and North American regions. However, it was later discovered that the remitted money had not been credited to the organizer’s account and had instead been remitted to an account operated by a third party.


Following the revelation of the financial loss to the SLTB the internal audit as well as an independent investigation had been carried out in 2016. Based on the recommendations made in the internal audit report and the preliminary investigation report as stated by the Tea Board, it was evident that Hasitha de Alwis was responsible for the financial loss caused to the SLTB. 
Meanwhile, reliable sources from the SLTB Accounts Division on condition of anonymity told this newspaper that it was De Alwis who submitted account details of the Saudi Organizers to them and the sole responsibility should be taken by him.


 “It is the Promotions Division that handles all promotional activities and it is the Head of that Division who sends us all necessary approvals and bank details of the beneficiary. He also submits either a letter or an e-mail sent by the organizers with the bank details. In this instance as well, Director Promotions sent all the details to us in order to transfer the money. 
When we double-checked with the Director Promotions whether the details given were accurate, De Alwis confirmed with us that these details were correct and to transfer the money to the account number provided,” sources added.


But, De Alwis said that he was discharging his duties in Dubai when this unfortunate incident took place. “I was constantly in touch with the Saudi Organizers as well as with the SLTB accounts division. When the money was first transferred, the money returned back with a claim being made that the account details were wrong. Then I received a call from the accounts division asking me to confirm the correct bank details to transfer the money. I spoke to the Saudi Organizers and they confirmed that the provided details were true. Without our knowledge, our calls have been hacked and a third party had got the money transferred to their account. I was not involved in the misappropriation of funds as such although some are accusing me of it,” De Alwis said.


According to the Information Officers official answers this newspaper received under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, it was during the fund transfer, that an unauthorized third party had intervened in the transaction and had changed the payment instructions. ‘The payment had not gone to the correct party. Since part of the responsibility was with the organizers of the event in Saudi Arabia, they agreed to bear half of the swindled money – the US $ 3100 and the balance half to recover from De Alwis’ says the Information Officer. 


Although the Organizers- the Saudi Event Management and Marketing Company SEMARK- agreed to bear half of the lost money, this newspaper is in possession of a copy of the letter dated November 9, 2016 sent by General Manager SEMARK, JadTaktak to HE MohomadAzmiThassim, Sri Lankan Ambassador to Riyadh.

 

  I was not involved in the misappropriation of funds as such although some are accusing me of it,” De Alwis said  

 

The letter states, ‘According to our legal department, the Saudi law states, that the party that transferred the amount should hold full responsibility of any lost amount. But because of your kind interference and request we are willing to drop this right. I hope that we have reached a good solution that serves the best interests of both parties and is up to your expectation’.
When contacted SLTB Director Finance to find out whether it was the Organizers of Saudi HORECA Trade Exhibition that had sent the bank details or  any other third party, the Director Finance said that he was not well familiar with the incident as he joined the institution two years ago. However he added that during such events, it is not the accounts division that receives information directly from the organizers, but through the Promotion Division.

 


Emails hacked by third party
“When there is a trade fair or any kind of such promotional campaign, we receive a voucher from the Promotional Department together with an e-mail from the organizers,” Director Finance said.


When asked whether the Finance Division verifies with the other party whether the details that had come through the promotions division was accurate, the Finance Director said that they do not check with the beneficiary whether the details provided are true, but verify with the Director Promotions.


Meanwhile, it has now come to light, how the Director-General SLTB, S.A. Siriwardhana, by letter dated October 9, 2017, few days before De Alwis went on retirement, has requested Secretary Ministry of Plantation to check the possibility of writing off the penalty imposed on him as per the investigation reports. The investigation recommendations were to recover the US $ 3150 from De Alwis before he went on retirement.


Siriwardhana’s letter further states, ‘We refer letter (Ref: No: MPI/Admin/07/SLTB/Gen) dated March 27, 2017, and as advised by the Ministry, we appointed an inquiring officer to investigate the irregularities on the fund transfer to Saudi Arabia HORECA Exhibition held in June 2016, in Saudi Arabia,

 

SLTB has come under severe criticism for getting back the former Director Promotions for the Middle East and North American region Hasitha de Alwis to serve as Director Promotions


‘As we mentioned in our previous letter of March 2, 2017, the SLTB transferred the US $6300 as an advance payment to the organizers of the above exhibition. During the fund transfer, it was reported that a third party has hacked the e-mail and had changed the payment instructions and directed the payment to their account. Since part of the responsibility was from the organizer’s side, they agreed to bear 50% of the total loss which is the US $3100.


‘According to the recommendations of the two investigations conducted by the internal audit and the external investigation officer, Mr. A.H. de Alwis is responsible for this transaction and the balance has to be recovered from him.


 ‘Accordingly advice of the Board was sought and the Board was of the view that since hacking is a common incident in e-commerce and also because he is a senior officer with a very long and unblemished career in the service of the tea industry, this amount should not be charged personally from him.


‘The Board suggested making a request to the Ministry to see the possibility of writing off this amount.


‘As Mr. A.H.de Alwis is also due to retire from service on October 16, 2017, after completing 60 years of age, we would be grateful if you could advise us whether this could be written off. S.A. Siriwardhana, Director-General’. 


However, by letter dated October 27, 2017, Senior Assistant Secretary Ministry of Plantation Industries K.S. Wijayakeerthi has written to Director General, SLTB directing him to recover the money from De Alwis.  


The letter further states, ‘this refers to your letter No: SLTB/DG/2/2 dated October 9, 2017. As per the recommendations of the investigation officers, it is observed that the sum of US $ 3150 should be recovered from Mr.A.H.de Alwis. Please take the necessary action accordingly’.


When requested for the investigation reports under the RTI Act, the SLTB said that they do not have the investigation reports in De Alwis’ personal file.


“We don’t have any records on the two investigations,” the Information Officer said. 


Although the DG’s letter to the Ministry Secretary stated that the two investigation reports have recommended that the loss has to be recovered from the accused, however a request was made from the ministry seeking approval not to recover it personally from De Alwis.  The latter told the Daily Mirror that it was only after the Ministry Secretary instructed the Tea Board to recover the money from him that the second investigation was carried out.


“After the internal audit recommendation, this request had been made to the Ministry Secretary. As he didn’t agree to the request made by the DG, a second investigation was carried out,” De Alwis claimed.


Meanwhile, the sources further revealed how De Alwis was instrumental in opening Tea Bureaus in Japan and Poland by convincing the Minister how much profits the country could obtain. He is also accused of not carrying out an assessment before opening up the Ceylon Tea Movement’s Café at Reid Avenue which incurred a huge loss to the institution.

 

 our calls have been hacked and a third party had got the money transferred to their account  


Confirming that SLTB incurred a massive loss from the Ceylon Tea Movement’s Café at Reid Avenue and as per the answers received, a feasibility test hasn’t been done before it was opened. The Information Officer said that the decision to open the Ceylon Tea Movement’s Café was taken by former Chairperson Janakee Kuruppu, as there wasn’t a place for foreigners to taste pure Ceylon Tea. 


“This Café was opened during CHOGM in 2013 in order to promote Ceylon Tea among members of foreign delegations. We sold liquid and packeted tea. Our operation partner was Sri Lankan Catering which catered to the visitors. But we couldn’t continue this as we incurred huge losses. The rental was exorbitant which we could not bear. As directed by the Cabinet of Ministers considering the losses, we closed the Tea Café in 2018. We invested Rs. 53.1 million in 2013, and the losses incurred were  in 2014 Rs. 13.509 million, in 2015  Rs.19.686 million, in 2016 Rs.9.7 million, in 2017 Rs.18.169 million and in 2018  Rs.10.445 million” the Information Officer, Assistant Director General (Administration) Ivan Perera said.


Hasitha de Alwis further refuting the allegations levelled against him and said that he was not involved in opening up the Poland Tea Bureau as well as the Ceylon Tea Movement’s Café at Reid Avenue
“It was I who set up the Japan Tea Bureau in 2004. My time was up to June, 2008. When I was in charge of the bureau we performed well. When I had to come back in mid- 2008, another officer was sent to take over the duties. Our mission there was to oversee the work till the end of that year. It was closed down in December the same year. We never incurred losses from the Japan Tea Bureau,” De Alwis said.   


He further said that opening up the Tea Café at Reid Avenue was not his brainchild and added that it was the work of the then Chairperson. “I was stationed in Dubai at that time and I didn’t have any hand in the opening of the Tea Café in 2013,” he said.


When inquired from former Secretary Ministry of Plantation Industries J.A. Ranjith as to why a cabinet memorandum was submitted recommending De Alwis as a Consultant when investigation reports revealed that he was responsible for the transaction, he said that he vaguely remembered the matter, but added that he cannot make comments to the media without obtaining the files.


“It is true we cannot appoint a person to a higher post if he was involved in such a scam. If he was appointed as a Consultant, the request may have come from the Board of Directors. Although we are the Chief Accounting Officers and we are responsible for such appointments, we are helpless as most of the time we cannot reject a request that comes from the Board of Directors. Even I have once mentioned this to the Attorney General as well. The sole responsibility lies with the Board of Directors and there have been instances when our recommendations were not considered,” J.A. Ranjith said.

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