Uncle – nephew duo running Public Trustee’s Dept.

Legality in question; Impersonation of public officer taking place?

The legality of some of the documents signed by the Public Trustee’s Department has come up for question in recent months, as an unauthorised nephew of the Public Trustee is reported to be signing papers on behalf of the Department.

The Department is currently embroiled in a major controversy, with the incumbent having appointed his own nephew as a ‘Legal Advisor’ to the office, and the ‘adviser’ continuing to sign documents on behalf of the Public Trustee, while the Deputy remains sidelined.Legal sources say that this could amount to an offence punishable under section 168 of the Penal Code which deals with impersonation of a public official.

Deputy Public Trustee Ms. D.T.K. Dissanayake has asked for clarification from the Public Trustee Sarath Seneviratne on the role of the ‘legal advisor’, the legality of him signing documents on behalf of the Department and him being assigned with the majority of the Deputy’s tasks.
The controversial Public Trustee, Seneviratne who was once suspended from service, when bribery and corruption charges were filed against him in court over the infamous Pramuka Bank case, had succeeded in having his nephew Ganesh Dharmawardena, a private lawyer, appointed as a Acting Public Trustee on a contract basis for three months in February this year. Shortly thereafter, the uncle had left the country for medical treatment, leaving his nephew in charge of a Department that oversees millions of Rupees, especially in several Trusts that have been formed over the years.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) had questioned the Public Trustee why he was recommending his nephew for the post of Acting Public Trustee, without advertising for the post. After a three-month period, the PSC had refused to extend Mr. Dharmawardena’s contract, despite a request to do so, but his uncle had then appointed his nephew as a Legal Advisor to the Department. He was given an office room and a secretary within the Department as well. The Legal Advisor continues to sign departmental files on behalf of the Department.

The Sunday Times learns that there is no post in the Public Trustee Department cadre for a Legal Advisor. As the Trust deals mainly with money matters and immovable properties, signing legal files have to be done by someone in the permanent cadre, such as the Public Trustee or the Deputy Public Trustee. Whenever the Department requires expert opinions on legal matters, either the Attorney General Department could be consulted or private lawyers could be retained.Mr. Dharmawardene admitted what he does. “Though, I am no more Acting Public Trustee, I continue to sign documents as the Legal Advisor to the Department”, he said on Friday, showing files bearing his signature, from a distance. His services as Acting Public Trustee were terminated by the PSC on April 30.

“A majority of the duties entrusted to me were re-allocated to Mr. Dharmawardena (when he was appointed Acting Public Trustee). They are still handled by him (as Legal Advisor), Deputy Public Trustee Ms. Dissanayake told the Sunday Times.Public Trustee Seneviratne said that his nephew is paid by the Department. “He only makes recommendations”, he said, contradicting what his own nephew admitted. He said that his nephew was made a Legal Advisor to the Department because the PSC refused to extend his Acting appointment beyond April 30.
Mr. Seneviratne yesterday said that he did not advertise the post for Acting Public Trustee because, then unknown persons would apply and they will undercut him. Asked whether he saw no conflict of interest by appointing his nephew even as a Legal Advisor, he said “there are relatives everywhere today, so what is wrong with this”.

Recently, it was Mr. Dharmawardena, the Legal Advisor to the Department who spoke on behalf of the Department, at a function to welcome the newly appointed Secretary to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. It was after his speech that the Deputy Public Trustee was called upon to speak.

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