We first made contact when we exchanged emails related to the 2012 STAR Person of the Year. I had my suspicions but finally was less interested in his true identity than in his reasons for suggesting our annual accolade should go to the West Indies cricket captain Darren Sammy.
To be fair, at least five other STAR readers had also named Sammy, but he alone had sought to justify his choice. A sampling: “As captain of the victorious West Indies team in the T20 championship, he accomplished what no other citizen has for years. Darren Sammy gave us a tremendous sense of national pride in 2012. He bridged the divides of politics, income and class and delivered unity. He invited all Caribbean citizens together for a meal of cricket perfection and served up a delicious dish of long forgotten regionalism.”
Hmmm, I mused, a meal of cricket perfection (not confection?). In any event, I thought: let Velon John wrap his sesquipedalian tongue around that. I recall thinking at the time how much the presumed pseudonymous e-mailer reminded me of a circus barker. If Sammy (a past recipient of our SPOTY award) deserved special media attention for uniting Saint Lucians as “no other citizen has for years,” then what had Derek Walcott been doing for at least three decades, to say nothing of young high-flying Laverne Spencer?
Besides: How had Sammy bridged “the divides of politics, income and class?” All hyperbole aside, he’d merely given the debt-ridden, fete-addicted nation with a million meaningless public holidays yet another reason to get drunk and disorderly.
Several other individuals before the cricketer had brought together irrationally exuberant disparate hordes to prance and dance on bellies busting with booze and other heady substances: Vybz Kartel, Shabba Ranks, Maxi Priest, Buju Banton and Patra among them. (To be fair, Sammy had sought to discourage further frittering away of scarce dollars on yet another off-season carnival!)
As I say, even as we exchanged contrary opinions, I suspected Sammy’s booster was neither whom nor what he purported to be. I had never heard of a Saint Lucian with his surname. It certainly did not feature in our telephone directory. Not that this particularly bothered me. Bloggers notoriously tend to imagine they are who they are not. But enough of that, the STAR had decided in 2012 that Ubaldus Raymond, the “under-utilized” former senator now reportedly working magic for the Turks & Caicos economy, was our best candidate for Person of the Year.
I had no further communication with this individual who claimed to share the same name as one of America’s foremost guitarists. I had missed his several puff pieces in the other local newspapers. Not even when he was handed a prized Chamber of Commerce award did his name ring any bells in my head. I would discover, quite by accident, just how wrong I’d been when I presumed Darren Sammy’s promoter was just another gold-plated parakeet with a penchant for mimicking Velon John’s vocabulary.
I had forgotten to turn off my TV. The next thing I knew a familiar raucous sound had invaded the normal peace and tranquility of my favorite reading room. I reached for my repellant. But just as I was about to press the on-off button on my TV remote the loquacious invader said something that stayed my forefinger: something about someone special who neither resembled nor sounded like a regular Saint Lucian but was most definitely “as Saint Lucian as green fig!”
That certainly got my attention. Absolutely intrigued, I set aside the fine book I’d been reading, entitled “Arguably Essays by Christopher Hitchens,” and redirected my gaze to the TV screen. Alas, the only face there belonged to my living-room invader. Several minutes that may have been only seconds elapsed before he directed his cameraman to bring into focus the supposedly extraordinary but for the time being invisible Saint Lucian.
Meanwhile I was wondering: famous as he was among the Red Zone intelligentsia for his meticulously researched public pronouncements, was it just possible the invader had actually uncovered a previously unknown truth about the man in the wings whom he had earlier introduced as Mr. George Benson?
Could my living-room invader have discovered the Grammy-winning guitarist-songwriter was actually Saint Lucian? A scoop to die for. The notion wasn’t all that farfetched. Certainly the famous musician would more easily pass for a native Saint Lucian—judging by his skin tone, his hair and other facial characteristics—than, say, our prime minister and the leader of the opposition United Workers Party.
As for his advertised un-Saint Lucian accent: it was true that when he performed at one of our jazz festivals he had not sounded like Guy Joseph or Gail Rigobert. Then again, does anyone?
If some have suggested the invader tends to cut his khaki to suit his frame, on the remembered occasion he was right on the button. The man he presented on TV as George Benson reminded me of no Saint Lucian I’d ever encountered: unstyled reddish blond hair and a face typically Caucasian. I could hardly wait to hear him speak. But first viewers would have to suffer the invader’s windy and effusive endorsements of his guests accomplishments. Then, as if he was having a hard time being a believer, he addressed the man at his side: “So you really are Saint Lucian?”
George Benson appeared coy, like an overweight, shy schoolgirl. Attired in some kind of open-neck blue shirt and jacket, he fidgeted in his chair, ran his hand over his unruly mane, before acknowledging his place of birth.
“Yes,” he said in a near whisper, eyes focused on the floor. “I was born at Victoria Hospital.”
His accent? It sounded in my ear like a cocktail of several influences including Jamaican, though not nearly as obvious as, say, Butch Stewart’s and nothing at all like Shabba’s or Bob Marley’s. He said something about his “Daddy in Guyana,” and how he had grown up in Jamaica and one or two other islands, and Canada, if memory serves.
I have no recollection of the proud researcher asking his guest the names of the personnel responsible for his delivery at VH, or who might be his mama. But Benson, smiling from ear to there, did volunteer something about “the local ladies” that had cared for him as a boy. Nevertheless he saw no good reason to identify them.
His host obviously took him at his word. He did not ask for evidence of Benson’s birthplace and Benson did not tell. In all events, these days a white man flashing what looked like a Looshan passport would mean little. Even Afghans and Iraquis carry them. A case of Peter paying for Paul, you might say.
And then came the big moment when George Benson told the invader he was a mass manufacturer of laptops and tablets and cell phones—that his company Cellestial was the only one of its kind in the whole wide Caribbean region.
Evidently once was not nearly enough for the troubled believer, whose ears are famously always close to the ground. Almost leaping from his chair in apparent jubilation, he exclaimed: “The only manufacturer of laptops in the Caribbean! Saint Lucia, did you hear that?”
He asked Benson to please repeat himself. His generous guest did more than that: now he bragged about the “4000 cell phones, 2000 laptops and 1000 tablets” Cellestial exported weekly. Yes, folks, weekly.
Just in case there were some disguised bad-intentioned yellow shirts among his Red Zone audience, the host announced that he had personally, in his “other capacity,” earlier visited Cellestial’s plant with his friend the prime minister and other invited officials, as if to say what Benson had revealed was no idle boast; that Cellestial was indeed the first and only laptop, cell phone and tablet mass manufacturer in the CARICOM region and was Saint Lucian-owned, managed and staffed. Also that the company employed 15 people—12 female—nine of whom were “single mothers previously unemployed and unskilled.” He neglected to say whether the male employees were the super-stud impregnators. (Benson might as well have been reading from an SLP election campaign brochure?)
Viewers on the day in question learned that Cellestial had recently graduated “seven members of the assembly technician team with Cellular Engineering Diplomas.” The company manufactured “ten products in Saint Lucia for export to seven CARICOM markets, plus Saint Lucia itself, through a diverse distributor network with retailers in non-traditional sectors such as big-box groceries, gas stations, hardware stores.” The ten products were not identified.
In February 2013 Cellestial (established in 2011 but evidently not operational until two years later) had been the recipient of “the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Innovation at the Chamber of Commerce Business Awards Ceremony.”
One week later, all of this according to the CEO himself, “Cellestial became the first Compete Caribbean grant program winner of US$500,000, chosen from hundreds of applicants across the region,” none of whom he identified.
Local newspapers gobbled up, obviously without checks, all that George Benson tossed their way. The Voice of 13 August 2013 featured in its business section an unusually large picture of Cellestial’s CEO and six young women holding up what appeared to be certificates, under the headline “Cellestial Single Mothers Now Internationally Certified Cellular Engineers.” The accompanying story reads like an advertisement, replete with quotes from the company’s CEO.
No surprise that it referred to Benson’s US$500,000 grant and the “prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Innovation.” It spoke, too, of “outside consultants” that had certified the single mothers and of training courses still to come. My information is that the “consultants” were two individuals allegedly recruited from the Cellular Repair School in Arizona and that their certificates carry no weight in the telecommunications industry. Moreover, 90 percent of Cellestial’s single mothers had acquired only the most basic cell phone repair and assembly skills.
As for that prestigious PM’s award, it went to Cellestial on the basis of the following innovations: “First Caribbean cell phone, tablet and laptop mass-producing factory; CARICOM product line with features specially designed for the regional consumer, including multi-languages, regional frequencies, at low cost . . . a unique and innovative product line” blah, blah, blah.
Foolish me, I had been under the erroneous impression the Prime Minister’s Award was based on close examination by, say, trained Ministry of Commerce personnel. I know now it is the Chamber of Commerce that actually determines who will receive the Prime Minister’s Award. Chamber members nominate themselves.
You may well ask, dear reader, are their claims verified? A Chamber person told me that particular task was left to the discretion of a judging panel. He assumed some due diligence preceded the presentation to Cellestial.
I was offered the name of one of the judges who had voted for George Benson. I soon discovered, in his case, at any rate, that “due diligence was very limited” because of the number of self-nominated candidates.
It may interest readers to know the local manufacturing association also dishes out awards to its more productive members every two years but insists on first checking all claims. I was assured that “an external auditor goes into all the companies and carries out assessments in advance of award presentations. Each company gets a report outlining the information in the audit. The process follows ISO criteria.”
If the Prime Minister’s Award was presented to George Benson strictly “for innovation,” with “limited due diligence,” then, if I were to inform the Chamber that I had hit upon an innovative way to drastically reduce the price of travel between here and Barbados, would I qualify for the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Innovation, even if my idea was to artificially inseminate Creole horses with the sperm of male blackbirds?
Of course it would be a simple matter to prove me a fraud—if I were required to validate my presentation. Then again, as we have already read, the Chamber is not exactly crazy about due diligence, reminiscent of someone else at the very top of the fool chain!
The TV host earlier cited—who had served the altogether unusual Saint Lucian more full tosses than uninformed kiss-ass local media workers ever bowled at Ernest Hilaire—had taken time to inform his audience about how impressed he and other officials had been by all they saw during a guided tour of Cellestial’s production plant.
He did not indicate whether they had requested proof of the company’s weekly exports. Or if they had bothered to find out whether the few laptops and tablets on display were manufactured in Saint Lucia. Or whether the talented single mothers had assembled them. By all I’ve learned, the official visit was reminiscent of a guided tour of Havana by a representative of Cuba’s government.
There’s a world of difference between Peugeot vehicles assembled, say, at the Dennery Fisheries Complex, and Peugeots manufactured in Germany. Same with laptops and tablets. And Benson had made a point of declaring his company “the only mass manufacturer” of the last named items in the Caribbean. There are assembly plants all over the region, including Saint Lucia. But, as with the PM’s Award, the Chamber judges chose to take Benson at his weirdly accented word.
I most certainly did not. Last week, following complaints by former employees who visited the STAR, I called Cellestial’s main man. He reminded me of our e-mail exchanges, earlier recalled. Then we got down to cases. Benson assured me he was a manufacturer—just as he’d said on TV—as opposed to an assembler. He referred to his newspaper clippings—dozens of them. Poring over them was like reading political pamphlets. They were repetitive and written in the same style, as if indeed by one author.
He served me the same self-advertisements I’d read in his clippings and heard him deliver on TV. Meanwhile I was far more curious about his weekly exports of 8000 cell phones, 2000 laptops and 1000 tablets. He insisted he had not exaggerated his numbers, informed me about promotions with a particular gas station and one outlet up north.
It didn’t take long for me to discover some 30 percent of the phones distributed by Cellestial’s main local outlet, at any rate, the only one to acknowledge an association with the company, had been returned by irate buyers. Suffice it to say the store in question wants nothing more to do with Cellestial.
“My understanding is that you bought cheaply a bunch of cell phones from LIME and refurbished some of them, ostensibly to benefit poor Haitians,” I told Benson. Also, that my information was that he had imported laptops and tablets from China, which he then distributed to particular organizations, always with the press in attendance. Moreover, that he’d acquired several old phones from LIME, most of which were still at his plant for show purposes.
“Prove my informants wrong,” I said. He did not.
Over and over I requested evidence supportive of his weekly exports. He promised to comply, but changed his mind. He wanted to keep his clients list secret, he said. Then we got into a useless debate about the meaning of “manufactured.”
I shared with him that I learned from sources connected to his plant that he had ordered sample laptops and tablets from China, then stamped them ‘Made in Saint Lucia’ before distributing them locally.
“The Vide Bouteille Secondary was a recipient,” I said. He did not react. After all, he could not deny photographic evidence of my claim.
He eventually agreed there was a difference between assembly and manufacturing plants. I added that “made-in-Saint Lucia” was the same as “locally manufactured” but if he should stamp an imported product to make it appear as if it had been manufactured in Saint Lucia he would most likely have acted contrary to law.
I have been informed of his product list at the time he invited the prime minister and his VIP entourage to his plant. Nothing I was told supported his export claims; neither his production capacity. He promised to consult his files and furnish me with proof. It never happened. Indeed, George Benson was reluctant to justify any of the claims he had publicly made about Cellestial.
I saw no evidence his tutors from Arizona were officially qualified to certify phone technicians. He repeatedly refused to tell me the location of his “24 outlets in Saint Lucia,” or his service centers in seven CARICOM countries. Meanwhile, a reliable source assures me the customs department is taking a closer look at George Benson’s Cellestial operations. And so I must pause.
Let’s now hear directly from two former employees; a sales coordinator and an assembly technician.
STAR: What were some of your observations about the company’s operations?
SC: Well, there’s no operation going on. This was never a regular company. When it opened, its intention sounded good. They said they would take single mothers from NSDC, train them and make them assembly technicians.
AT: We were supposed to get parts from overseas to assemble phones because that’s all we were trained to do. These people have never assembled phones. In one year none of us worked for an entire three months. We cannot tell you what was a fortnight’s pay.
SC: This was a PR company to promote Benson. Every time he needed publicity he would call us to make it look like work was going on.
AT: We had a Haiti project. We were supposed to be taking used phones and refurbishing them to send off to Haiti. The phones are still in the storeroom. Every time we were called to the plant for the media, there would be talk about shipping the same phones to Haiti in a day or two. But these phones have been at the plant from the time it started and are still there. This is just a media showplace. The longest most of us worked straight was one week. Almost every time we were asked to come in, the media was also invited.
SC: When I first went to the company some other ladies came in and then another set that was NSDC. . . SMILE workers. About ten of them. In total, there were about fifteen of us. We were paid as daily-paid workers, $53 a day. Then around November 2012 we started getting company cheques.
AT: Around April 2013 they stopped paying NIS but never told us why. Then in July we were told they would no longer be paying NIS for us because we were independent contractors getting paid by the day. Also they would deduct ten percent as a contractor fee. An official insisted that the ten percent not be deducted. But we stayed on. We were not working often after training at NSDC in October 2012. Then Cellestial signed a memorandum of understanding with NSDC single mothers as part of the SMILES program.
SC: We were told that after three months with the company we would get glasses and eye care. But that changed. We were told we’d have to work three consecutive months. None of us qualified since we never worked a full fortnight. Then they offered us daycare assistance. All the ladies were given the address of the daycare that would be paid by the company. Benson never paid and all the ladies had to remove their children from the center. We were part-time workers and we felt we couldn’t complain. But most of us told NSDC what was going on. We suggested they should stop sending ladies to Cellestial.
AT: I think George Benson was being protected. I realized within a week he wasn’t telling the truth about his operations. The authorities could have verified whether he was ordering the parts as he claimed. The accountant and management knew what was going on.
I went to the Ministry of Commerce and spoke to Guillaume Simon. He called me and said he would look into my complaints. The day Simon came to visit, Benson conveniently had three of us working. I used to see the e-mails between Simon and Benson. Simon never went in the factory area. If he had he would’ve seen nothing was going on.
SC: In my view the authorities need to investigate George Benson.
AT: But George was not the only problem. Others suspected what was going on . . . One of them was going out and selling what we did not have. He was selling air. We used to order samples, which were sold. So we never had products. We’ve not assembled anything for months. The police ordered tablets. We were told the ministry would order tablets for schools. Sandals wanted tablets. So did Sir Arthur.
SC: The operations director and sales manager walked away when they found out what was really going on. That was last November. Benson’s partner also pulled out and that’s when the shit hit the fan. James Sublet came to Saint Lucia and saw for himself what was going on.
I talked with the general manager of NSDC, Selma St. Prix. Suffice it to say she acknowledged that she, like the prime minister and other government officials, had never looked behind the Cellestial curtain, so to speak. But she confirmed Cellestial was not quite as heavenly as the picture George Benson had painted for our gullible government officials and the ever accommodating media!
Oh, one small coincidence: Cellestial is legally represented by the firm of DuBoulay Anthony and Company. The first named is the wife of the Political Leader of the UWP, and the second is the daughter of the presenter of the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for “innovation”.