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HCU meeting aborted

By Anna Rose Madray Thursday, September 18 2008

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Angry and frustrated depositors and shareholders of the Hindu Credit Union (HCU) Group of Companies yesterday shouted down Commissioner of Co-operatives Charles Mitchell prompting him to abort a meeting he called to disclose the findings of an auditor’s report on the cash- strapped financial institution.

Although escorted by uniformed police officers to the HCU’s Convention Centre in Freeport, Chaguanas yesterday, Mitchell was greeted by a visibly irate crowd, some of who shouted insults and refused to let him speak at the meeting.

Mitchell’s intent was to disseminate a summary of the results of the long-awaited Ernst and Young audit, however, the meeting was adjourned before he had a chance to address depositors and shareholders.

The mood in the convention centre was uneasy even before Mitchell arrived. Some members became upset as security guards asked them to present their national identification cards and debarred those who did not have their cards from entering the building.

When Mitchell entered the main conference room there was an uproar, with shouts of “No meeting!” and “Go home!”

Denied a chance to speak, Mitchell had personnel distribute a three-page summary of the audit to members. The three-page summary stated the HCU had a debt of $876 million compared to the $390 million it held in assets. “ This means that the HCU’s liabilities, including, members’ deposits and shares outweigh the assets of HCU by $486.5 million,” according to the summary. With the exception of Bankers’ Insurance, all of the subsidiaries of the HCU operated at a loss and were therefore insolvent. Mitchell tried to explain this information but the membership would not listen.

A group dressed in red was very vocal and there was a report that someone threw water on Radio Jaagriti’s Devant Maharaj. Radio Jaagriti, which is owned by the Hindu organisation the Maha Sabha, has been a critic of the collapse of the HCU group which was placed under the management of a provisional liquidator after the high court ordered that its assets be seized.

After the meeting an upset Maharaj told Newsday,“ This is a naked display of thuggery.” He said Mitchell and liquidator Dave Rampersad were insulted and surrounded by the irate group.

“Prior to the meeting, they were canvassing the membership of the audience to disrupt the meeting and told them not accept what the commissioner had to offer. They had a preconceived agenda as what should be done, which would include the re-appointment of the board and rejecting the evaluation of the assets,” he added.

Some depositors and shareholders expressed their frustration with the turn of events. A depositor, who said that he had invested $1 million in the HCU, said he was discouraged with the behaviour of “the mob.” He said he did not know what would be his future if he did not recover his investment. Another depositor, who had invested $300,000 was also upset.

“I am disappointed. They disturbed the meeting which is a bad insult to people who genuinely came to hear the commissioner. I am concerned about what will happen with my money.”

In an interview after the meeting, Mitchell told Newsday he planned to write to Acting Commissioner of Police James Philbert to explain why police officers did not subdue the rowdy group of about 150 members. “When I called the meeting to order about three times, they continued shouting, ‘No meeting,’ said Mitchell. During the chaotic meeting, many HCU stakeholders refused to accept the summary’s finding that the financial statements submitted by HCU’s management were inaccurate.

They demanded that the full Ernst and Young audit be released. The Credit Union Members Group (CRMG) and the HCU Depositors and Shareholders’ Group (HCUDSG) put aside their differences to oppose what they described as the commissioner’s “high-handed manner.”

After the meeting, the CRMG issued a statement and said members were adamant the meeting could not have proceeded unless they received the Ernst and Young audit, and be allowed time to study the report and make recommendations to the commissioner. CRMG is also concerned the auditor had decreased the value of HCU’s assets to $390 million, while liabilities increased to $876 million, indicating that depositors will only receive 44 cents on the dollar.

President of the CRMG, Rick Maharaj told Newsday, “A report like this is not something that the people can have confidence in, and we are not asking the commissioner to do anything outside of his portfolio. We’re asking him to give the board a copy of the report. They should have the opportunity to defend themselves.”

As members chanted, “We’re not going home,” Leslie Dookie, chairman of the HCUDSG said they were awaiting the arrival of HCU chairman Harry Harnarine.

“Give the report to the board, and let the board answer back to the membership and the commissioner!” Dookie argued the assets had been grossly undervalued, and voiced his lack of confidence in the Ernst and Young report. “ This three-page document, devaluing our assets by more than 65 percent, the membership could not take that. Now you are telling us it is between 15 to 20 cents on the dollar, when in the preliminary report it was valued at 72 cents.”

HCUDSC’s attorney Carol Cuffy-Dowlat told reporters the summary report had not been authenticated by Mitchell or the auditor.

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