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Tourism won’t pay me for my work to save the 2010 African Heritage Disapora Trail conference

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A Bermudian consultant claims she is still owed thousands of dollars for work done for the African Diaspora Heritage Trail (ADHT) Foundation in 2010.

Keetha Lowe, of Integrated Global Management, organised an ADHT conference on the Island that year after winning a contract put out to tender by the Department of Tourism.

She told The Royal Gazette that though the conference was, against all odds, a success, her experience with Tourism was a “nightmare”.

Three years on, she is still trying to get Government to pay more than $50,000 she says she is owed and has handed over a dossier of information about her claim to the Ombudsman.

Ms Lowe wants to publicly counter a claim from ADHT that she owed the organisation money, after the foundation's then executive director Michelle Burrows paid $203,427 of public funds into her company's bank account.

The consultant used the funds to pay conference vendors, at the request of Ms Burrows, but ADHT told her after the event that she should never have received the money and should pay it back.

Days after the conference, Ms Lowe was asked to meet with the Department of Internal Audit to account for the $203,427, which she says she was easily able to do by referring to bank statements and paid invoices.

She shared the paperwork with this newspaper to prove she made the payments and says she is breaking her silence now to protect her professional reputation.

She alleged that both Tourism and ADHT were guilty of “reckless conduct” and “poor business practices” which were “beyond inexcusable and non-acceptable”.

“The essence and original purpose of the Diaspora has been lost in agendas, personalities and practices,” she alleged. “I'm just a victim of how they were able to operate.

“There are other victims as well. The process [of dealing with Government] can be very intimidating, because you are one person attempting resolve, confronted by an entire system.

“[If you] remain silent, there's no resolve. [If you] speak up, you're silenced.”

The ADHT is a Bermuda-based international initiative, sponsored by the Department of Tourism, which “promotes socially conscious travel to sites identified as relevant and important to the global narrative of people and culture of African descent”.

The foundation set up to manage and promote the Trail gets hundreds of thousands of dollars from the public purse every year but doesn't release information on how many visitors it attracts to the Island. It recently lost its charitable status.

Ms Lowe said serious questions needed to be asked about whether taxpayers were truly benefiting from grants given to the ADHT Foundation which, as reported last month by this newspaper, totalled almost $1.7 million in the last seven years.

She claimed she found a “shambolic” state of affairs when she was hired by Tourism to organise the 2010 conference.

In addition to having less than four months to pull the event together, she claims she was:

told that Maryland-based travel company Henderson Associates, whose work on ADHT had caused concern the previous year, had to be given a contract for the conference on the instructions of Premier and Tourism Minister Ewart Brown but were given no significant work to do;

* told to use her management fee to pay vendors because Tourism was not in a position to release funds;

* given several contracts with Tourism, none of which were ever signed, before being asked to sign a different contract with the ADHT Foundation; and

* told by senior Tourism officials not to worry about selling conference tickets because no one took the ADHT conferences seriously and seats would be filled with government employees.

Ms Lowe's involvement with the conference began in spring 2010, when she was approached by Ms Burrows to submit a request for proposal for the event, along with other agencies.

One of the other companies which submitted a bid was Stratford Group, which is co-owned by ADHT Foundation treasurer Olu Bademosi.

IGM was awarded the contract in May 2010, with the event due to be held in September.

Ms Lowe said she worked within a tight time frame to pull it together but eventually organised a four-day, seven-event programme, far exceeding the single “plenary” event she'd originally been asked to do.

During the planning stages, she became uncomfortable when Ms Burrows told her that Henderson Travel would be involved.

She had become aware of the 2009 Supreme Court case involving former ADHT administrator LeYoni Junos, who claimed she lost her job after flagging up concerns about Henderson Travel.

“I got a call to say ‘by the way, Henderson Travel have to be given a contract for this initiative',” Ms Lowe alleged. “I said ‘well, what are they going to do?'.

“Michelle [Burrows] said ‘don't ask me what they are going to do, I have been told to find them something to do'. I was told this came down from Ewart.”

Despite Ms Lowe's misgivings, she describes the conference, eventually held in October 2010, as a “massive success”.

That view was shared by ADHT board member and author Ira Philip, who gave it a glowing write-up in The Royal Gazette, describing a “multitude of highly stimulating historical, cultural and social events”.

After the event, she was asked to attend a meeting with Ms Burrows and ADHT's accountants, when it became clear there were “gross inaccuracies left, right and centre with ADHT's budgeting and calculations”.

“She [Ms Burrows] said she's not sure if she has transferred $125,000 or $200,000. I'm sitting there thinking ‘how could you be running a conference?'.

“You have the Department of Tourism and a treasurer in place and you don't know how or what you have done in terms of any costs, expenses, etc.”

The disparity in figures led to the meeting with Internal Audit. She says the Department thanked her for her cooperation and told her it was not concerned with the work IGM had done.

Since then, Ms Lowe has been trying to resolve the issue with Tourism and ADHT, claiming she is still owed more than $50,000 of her agreed $67,000 management fee.

The last correspondence she received was from Tourism permanent secretary Francis Richardson on April 26 this year.

Mr Richardson wrote: “Having reviewed both the documentation that you have presented on behalf of IGM and the relevant ADHT/Bermuda Department of Tourism files, it is apparent that there is disagreement on the status of the final balance of account for services rendered.

“Please be advised that this matter will be referred to the Accountant General and the Attorney General Chambers for their review and subsequent response.”

The Department of Tourism declined to comment when asked questions about Ms Lowe and the funds for the 2010 conference.

A spokesman said the ADHT Foundation received a Tourism grant of $250,000 for the financial year 2010/11, plus sponsorship of $226,000 for the ADHT conference.

This newspaper understands that Frontier Financial Services conducted an inquiry into the conference funds on behalf of ADHT.

We asked ADHT Foundation Chairman Maxine Esdaille for a copy of its report but it was not shared with us.

Ms Esdaille said the matter with Ms Lowe was “resolved” as far as the organisation was concerned and she had no further comment.

Mr Bademosi said a full response to questions concerning Ms Lowe and ADHT's finances would be provided to this newspaper in due course.

Ms Burrows, former business development manager at Wedco, resigned from the ADHT following the conference and could not be reached for comment. A replacement for the post of executive director has yet to be hired.

Ombudsman Arlene Brock said she could not discuss or confirm whether she was investigating any complaint as her inquiries must, in law, be conducted in private.

Ms Lowe said taxpayers should be asking whether ADHT, which is solely funded by Tourism dollars, was providing value for money and really increasing visitor arrivals to the Island.

“Shouldn't we be educating and driving traffic into Bermuda, ensuring outstanding experiences that lead to residual tourism, thus revenue?” she asked. “If our tax dollars are funding the initiative, shouldn't more locals, vendors and facilities benefit? Shouldn't mainstream Bermuda understand, embrace and promote the product?”

Useful website: www.adht.bm.

Consultant Keetha Lowe shares paperwork showing how public funds from the ADHT Foundation were spent. Photo David Skinner
2010 African Diaspora Heritage Trail Conference attendees applaud during a conference session at the Grotto Bay Hotel.

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Published August 05, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated August 05, 2013 at 1:24 am)

Tourism won’t pay me for my work to save the 2010 African Heritage Disapora Trail conference

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