ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 20
Financial Times

Tea Board CEO sent ‘home’

By Chathuri Dissanayake

H.D. Hemaratne, Director-General of the Sri Lanka Tea Board, was sent on compulsory leave last week by its chairman H.A.C. Abeywardene in a move that shocked the industry as the former was widely considered as an honest officer with integrity.

The dumping of this senior officer, who has worked at the Board for the past 30 years, came following a long clash with Abeywardene over many issues.

The chairman confirmed that Hemaratne has been sent on compulsory leave and when asked whether an inquiry is being held, said: “Yes, it will be held but we have not decided when and who is conducting it.” Asked whether the Plantations Ministry has ordered an inquiry into Hemaratne’s conduct, he said: “There is no such thing. I did not receive any such directive.”

He also said the Board doesn’t come under the purview of the Ministry, a view contracted by government officials.

Ministry Secretary J. Abeywicrama told The Sunday Times FT that when the ministry was informed of the chairman’s decision “he was instructed to conduct the preliminary investigations as soon as possible.”

The Sunday Times FT learns that the Secretary of any Ministry is the Chief Accounting Officer of all institutions and organizations that come under the Ministry. In this case the Tea Board comes under the Ministry.

Asked to comment, Hemaratne denied the charges. “I have asked for a proper charge sheet in order to defend myself,” he said.

Hemaratne’s temporary removal comes on the back of the victimization of former Tea Research Institute Director Dr Ziyad Mohamed who was forced to quit after establishing his innocence following bogus charges brought against him by his chairman in April.

Dr Mohamed, another honest and efficient officer, was temporarily jailed, sent on compulsory leave and subsequently the court dropped all charges of alleged misappropriation against him. President Mahinda Rajapaksa then reinstated Dr Mohamed but the latter quit because he has filed a fundamental rights case against the authorities over wrongful arrest and defamation. That case is coming up in the Supreme Court on Tuesday. Abeywardana in a letter to Hemaratne informing him of the decision has lined up several allegations of fraud and deception against him. However to date Hemaratne says he hasn’t been issued a proper charge sheet. The matter has been brewing for some time with The Sunday Times FT reporting a few weeks that there were attempts to sideline Hemaratne.

The tea industry in one voice said it was shocked by the development and described Hemaratne as an exemplary officer.

“He is a good officer and has served the trade well. He has been an exemplary officer. In this instant we do not know what has happened until the chairman issues the charge sheet,” said Tyeab Akbarally, President of the Colombo Tea Traders Association and a member of the Tea Board directorate.

The way Hemaratne was sent on compulsory leave is also questionable. The Sunday Times FT learnt that the normal administrative practice is to first investigate a complaint before any action is taken against an officer. After the preliminary inquiry is held the officer is ask for an explanation and if the explanation is not satisfactory, an official is appointed to further investigate the matter.

Padma Nanayakara, President of the Tea Association of Sri Lanka and the Tea Smallholders Association, like many others, was stunned by the decision.

“To the best of my knowledge Mr. Hemaratne has served with honesty and integrity for the last 30 years. He started as a clerk and worked his way up to this level with a lot of dedication and integrity. He has done a lot of service to the industry. The entire industry is shocked. The situation is pathetic it is a sad state of affairs at the board,” Nanayakkara, who is also a board member, said.

He also expressed his concern over the future of the industry as ‘fearless officers who exposed the malpractices’ are being victimised as the industry has experienced in the resent past.

Nanayakkara said Hemaratne’s removal was ‘news’ to the board of directors as the board had previously taken a decision not to take any action against Hemaratne on the issue over the appointment of a deputy commissioner which is currently in dispute before courts.

The chairman’s letter to Hemaratne refers to this ‘disputed’ appointment as one of the causes for the ‘removal’ action in addition to other allegations of fraud and misrepresentation.

Niraj De Mel, a former chairman of the Tea Board, said it is a sad day in the industry to see honest officers being victimized. “I cannot imagine an honest officer who has worked for 30 years in the Tea Board being sent on compulsory leave. However I do not know what the reasons are; we have to wait for the inquiry,” he said.

The chairman’s letter to Hemaratne alleges that he had wrongfully appointed a Deputy Commissioner and the Assistant Director of Laboratories; has been responsible for unauthorized use of funds; and collection and misuse of tsunami funds.

Top to the page

Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.