Departure of CEO highlights serious woes at Barbados’ major tourist attraction
Personal attacks and verbal abuse at the highest level, the resignation of a chairman and “exhorbitant” attorney fees that caused two Cabinet Ministers to intervene are among a list of nagging problems uncovered at Caves of Barbados Limited (CBL) over the past four years alone.
Investigations by Barbados TODAY have revealed that CBL, which operates Harrison’s Cave at Welchman Hall, St Thomas, had been marred by internal tensions and deep divisions between Haldene T. Dottin, who resigned as chairman in July 2011, and Joe-ann Grant, who was recently fired from the post of chief executive officer.
Grant, who has since referred her dismissal to her lawyers and is preparing to bring legal action, had also been the thorn in the side of CBL’s attorney-at-law Richard Byer for questioning and delaying payment of a $766,855.24 fee he charged for providing a legal opinion on a $25.7 million loan from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) to finance the cave’s redevelopment.
Things took a turn for the worse, at least between 2010 and 2012, because of the continual hold up in payment to Byer. Official documents, in the possession of Barbados TODAY, show that the then chairman Dottin and the board of directors had also expressed reservations about the amount of the legal fees charged by their lawyer.
In a letter to the Minister of Environment, Water Resources and Drainage Dr Denis Lowe, dated March 3, 2010, Dottin urged the Minister to intervene, saying the state agency was unable to pay Byer such a large sum of money.
He drew the Minister’s attention to the “enormity” of the fee, considering that another attorney, who had given a similar legal opinion on the original loan agreement for $33.7 million, had only charged $17,000 plus VAT.
“Mr Byer has now submitted a statement of account for legal fees in the sum of $666,820.65, in addition to Value Added Tax in the amount of $100,024.59, a net total of $766,855.24,” the letter to Dr Lowe read.
“However, since submitting his invoice on February 2, 2010, Byer has made several requests for settlement of his fees,” it added.
The former chairman also told the Minister that the fee was an unexpected and unbudgeted expense.
“Moreover, while we are not familiar with the scale on which legal fees are computed and therefore are not in a position to question the composition or quantum of legal counsel’s statement of account, we also wish to express our concerns regarding the enormity of the legal cost, when compared with the legal cost of $17,000 plus VAT associated with the original loan agreement of $33.7 million,” Dottin wrote.
It was at this point, that he urged the Minister to intervene in a bid to bring about a settlement in the matter.
“We are seeking your guidance and directive as to how we may proceed to resolve this outstanding matter in light of the fact that Mr Byer has already made several advances for full settlement of this matter.”
After no fewer than three letters to Dottin and Grant demanding his money, an evidently infuriated Byer sent a strongly-worded email – that included an expletive – to the former CEO on April 12, 2010.
“Mrs Grant, when is my [expletive] invoice going to be paid for the [CDB] opinion. I have it on good authority that you are the catalyst of the delay and much unnecessary enquiry,” stated the email.
Byer again took a turn in Grant in a letter dated 24 January, 2011 and addressed to then chairman Dottin.
“Once again I am appealing to pay me my fees. I suppose if I was a lawyer with upper or middle class breeding my fee would have been [paid]. But I am neither,” he stated. “So when I sent my bill, your chief executive officer took it upon herself to call all and sundry to find out if it should be paid, even though you had said to do so.”
By April of the following year, the payment issue was still unresolved. It was therefore brought before the then Acting Minister of the Environment Dennis Kellman in a letter from former CEO Grant.
Approaching the end of the third year since Byer had submitted his invoice, he was still unpaid, according to company correspondence.
By this time, Ian Broome had taken over as chairman of CBL and in a letter dated October 29, 2012, Broome wrote Lowe advising him that at a meeting between Caves of Barbados and Byer a decision had been taken, not only on Byer’s more than half million dollar legal fee, but an additional fee he was charging for interpreting the contract of then CEO Grant. Broome told the Minister that it was agreed at the meeting with Byer that both fees would be reduced on the loan agreement to $487,817.40, VAT inclusive, and for interpreting the CEO’s contract from $38,187.50 to $23,500.
It is understood that the reduced sum of money had since been paid to Byer.
Amidst the turmoil within the company, Grant also wrote Minister Lowe bitterly complaining about the tensions between Dottin and herself.
“I am writing to formally bring to your attention the situation regarding my concerns as CEO/Managing Director with Cave of Barbados Limited,” she said in a letter of April 26, 2011.
She went on to point out that “for a period of approximately three months, I have been continuously subjected to a hostile work environment by the chairman of the board, acting on occasions on behalf of the board of directors.”
Grant told Lowe that in response to several pieces of correspondence from the chairman, she had requested a meeting with him in writing on no fewer than two occasions to discuss matters relating to the business of Caves of Barbados Ltd.
Grant said the requests had not only gone unanswered, but she had no conversations with him since February 15, 2011. In that same letter, Grant asked Minister Lowe to meet with her to discuss “these urgent concerns”.
While these events were taking place, questions were also asked by Grant and Financial Controller Jennifer Williams about the manner in which the company’s credit cards were being used.
For example, Williams sent an email to Dottin on April 18, 2011, reminding him of outstanding balances on the credit card statements for November and December 2010 and telling him she was awaiting information to finalize the 2010 accounts.
The chairman was also asked to note that when buying goods/services with CBL’s credit card, the invoices and the card slips should be submitted to the accounts department as soon as possible.
This, Williams said, would assist the company in reconciling the credit card statement in a timely manner. Williams told Dottin it would also help with the cave’s audit trail during its financial audit and the allocation of expenses to the appropriate accounts.
Five months after this correspondence was written, Dottin, who was into his second month of resignation, wrote a letter to CEO Grant in which he sought to clear his name regarding his use of the company’s credit card, while at the same time making a veiled threat to take legal action.
“I am in receipt of both pieces of correspondence under your signature in which you are requesting me to liquidate an outstanding amount on the subject credit facility [expenditure on company’s credit card],” that letter’s opening paragraph said.
He said the records showed that whenever he used CBL’s credit card in the past, the debited amount had always been repaid.
“I am therefore very surprised, based on the mud that is being thrown in my direction, particularly since I do not owe Caves of Barbados Limited the monies which I am being harassed to settle.”
Dottin told Grant he had even instructed the Financial Controller to deduct any outstanding monies from his monthly stipend, if she was satisfied he was indebted to the company in any way.
“That has not [been] done and I continued to receive cheques from CBL even after July 2011 when I resigned as chairman.”
In fact, he said he had paid from his personal cheque $1,471.79 “in full settlement of the credit card amount that pertained to the cost of my accommodation while in London last year  on company business”.
In his parting message to the former CEO, Dottin declared, “I will not allow you or anyone, be it doctor, lawyer, minister of religion or garbage man, to drag my good name through political filth for such a meagre sum.”
Just last Wednesday, Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism Irene Sandiford-Garner reported to the Upper Chamber that there had been a decline in visitors to Harrison’s Cave over the past 14 years and the attraction was not making money.
At that sitting, Independent Senator Alwyn Adams also questioned how the poor financial performance of Harrison’s Cave could have been kept under wraps for so long.