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Lal Takes On USP

When the document was leaked in May 2019, Dr Lal faced humiliation, social media vilification, attacks, abusive comments and phone calls and loss of dignity.
03 Aug 2022 13:23
Lal Takes On USP
Pacific Technical and Further Education (TAFE) former Chief Executive Officer Dr Hasmukh Lal.

Former Pacific Technical and Further Education (TAFE) chief executive officer, Dr Hasmukh Lal’s employment matter against the University of the South Pacific (USP) started yesterday.

Dr Lal gave a chronology of events leading to his departure from Pacific TAFE. He is represented by lawyer Siddharth Nandan from Reddy & Nandan Lawyers.

USP is represented by Feizal Haniff and Pita Suguturaga from Haniff Tuitoga Lawyers. Dr Lal will call five witnesses. Former USP Audit and Risk Committee chair Mahmood Khan, now former USP’s Pro-Chancellor Winston Thompson, USP’s former deputy Vice-Chancellor Research Dr Derek Armstrong, USP’s former deputy Vice-Chancellor Administration Dr Richard Coll, and USP’s officer-in-charge at Human Resources Ravinesh Shankar.

Dr Lal’s primary cause of action is a breach of employment contract by USP and seeks claims of financial loss such as salary and entitlements under the contract, humiliation, and loss of dignity.

 

Trial Day 1:

Examination in Chief

Dr Lal testified that sometime in June 2017, he received a letter that USP appointed him as the new Pacific TAFE director.

Two months after, he received another letter from his supervisor, Professor Richard Coll, that his title would be renamed to executive director and be co-opted into the senior management of USP.

Following this, USP renamed his title from executive director to CEO of Pacific TAFE. In 2018, Dr Lal applied for a contract renewal which was to expire in December 2019, with an increment and bonus and submitted it to Dr Coll.

Dr Coll strongly recommended a contract renewal with bonus and increment which was then submitted to then Vice-Chancellor Professor Rajesh Chandra.

 

Dr Lal said a staff review committee was formed in late November 2018 and members included Professor Chandra, Dr Coll, Dr Armstrong, acting vice-president administration Anjeela Jokhan, and Mr Shankar.

He said Vice-Chancellor designate Professor Pal Ahluwalia was also present at the committee meeting. When asked by Mr Nandan why Professor Ahluwalia was present in the meeting, Dr Lal said he was told that Professor Ahluwalia forced himself into the meeting to observe deliberations.

Mr Nandan then asked if Professor Ahluwalia was on USP’s payroll at that time. Dr Lal said no and added that Professor Ahluwalia did not have any official authority at that time.

Dr Lal further testified that he was told by Dr Coll that the staff review committee could not come to a decision because Professor Ahluwalia wished to have a meeting with him. He met Professor Ahluwalia at Governor’s Restaurant in Suva in December 2018, where he was asked for future plans.

 

Dr Lal said he told Professor Ahluwalia he did not have any immediate plan to leave USP unless he got a better or equivalent offer outside. He said Professor Ahluwalia told him he should explore his options because he would be running the show at USP.

Dr Lal also told the court that Professor Ahluwalia said he did not want him in the senior management of USP. In January 2019, Professor Ahluwalia removed him from the senior management. This was not objected to by USP’s lawyer.

Dr Lal said Professor Ahluwalia told the staff review committee of the agreement and asked for the contract to be formalised, however, the contract was not handed to Dr Lal until December 2019. The contract had a reduction of his salary and his CEO title would be reviewed.

 

In November 2019, Professor Ahluwalia called him to his office for a meeting in the presence of Mr Shankar.

He said Professor Ahluwalia could not give a three-year contract and there was a commission established with instructions to provide Dr Lal a one-year contract only.

Dr Lal did not accept this. He was asked to justify why he should receive a three-year contract.

Dr Lal then wrote an email to the executive director of USP Human Resources executive director to query the reduced salary.

 

Dr Lal further testified that Professor Ahluwalia had a meeting with the then Ministry of Education, Heritage, and Arts permanent secretary Alison Burchell.

He said along with the Professor, Dr Armstrong also attended the meeting. He added Dr Armstrong informed him in that meeting, that the permanent secretary said to Professor Ahluwalia to do away with Pacific TAFE.

He said as per Dr Armstrong, Professor Ahluwalia said he could do it and questioned what the Fijian Government would give him in return. There was no objection by the USP’s lawyer.

Dr Lal said Professor Ahluwalia authored a document named Breaches, Mismanagement and Fraud of the past management which was with Professor Ahluwalia and then director assurance and compliance Doris Dulari.

 

When the document was leaked in May 2019, Dr Lal faced humiliation, social media vilification, attacks, abusive comments and phone calls and loss of dignity.

He wrote to Mr Thompson seeking professional protection who responded saying that he regretted what happened and if there were any future occurrences to tell him.

On May 20, 2019 Dr Lal met with Professor Ahluwalia and handed a brown envelope. He saw email correspondences in the file of his research and analytical officer Priya Devi, however, he did not find any allegation of gross misconduct.

His solicitors when seeking allegation documents also sought extra time which was denied by USP.

Dr Lal denied all allegations of gross misconduct and did not instruct Priya Devi to conduct research for his doctorate final project. The trial continues before Employment Relations Judge Justice Anjala Wati.

 

Feedback: ashna.kumar@fijisun.com.fj



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