Members of the Vermont Wise and Prudent Friendly Society have elected an interim committee to begin the rebuilding process, one month after the last president admitted to them that he stole EC$83,000 of its money.
The members met on Wednesday in Vermont and disbanded the old leadership of the 74-year-old institution and elected an interim committee.
The 100 or so of the 1,600-member society that attended the meeting wanted the society to continue so that they can get back their money, a number of attendees told iWitness News.
Among the persons nominated to serve on the interim committee is Othniel Browne, a retired teacher, who told iWitness News an executive has not been elected.
“This group of people that they nominated tonight, we have to meet and decide there,” he said.
He said members were passionate at the meeting. “All they think about is ‘getting back my money,” he said
Browne, however, told iWitness News that some persons want the society to continue because they use it as a bank.
“They’ve never known a bank. So, people like that, they want their bank to continue…”
In a friendly society, members make regular contributions to pay for each other’s funeral.
At the end of the year, a portion of members’ contributions is taken out, depending on how many members died, and the extent of the pay-outs to pay for funerals. A portion of the contributions is retained in each member’s account, and the remainder is given back to members.
These pay-outs are usually done just before the Christmas holidays and some members of friendly societies often use their accounts to save for Christmas shopping.
“These are the people I am interested in: the people who don’t have anywhere else to save,” Browne said.
On Dec. 23, 2015, then president of the society, 57-year-old Morris Prescott, a teacher and justice of the peace, admitted to members that he misappropriated EC$83,000 of their money, claiming that the used it to help unfortunate students — who he did not identify.
Prescott pleaded not guilty to 12 counts of theft — amounting to EC$84,000 — when he appeared in court on Dec. 30, 2016 and was granted EC$90,000 bail.
His lawyer said the matter might not go to trial as Prescott intends to repay the money by then.
Trial is set for March 17.
Browne raised concerns about the management of the friendly society and wondered what happened before Prescott’s presidency.
“Look at the building for a society 74 years old. So, when we think that something happened recently where the president misappropriated, misused funds, which he claimed, I am questioning what has been happening to the management of this society for 74 years.”
Browne said he has been a member of the society for over 30 years but never raised those questions because “there was no avenue, no meetings were called”.
He said that someone goes to the society lodge and pays his book. “So I was never into the society in any major way.”
Browne told iWitness News that Prescott is his friend and he tried to “pressure” him in the past to call general meetings.
He further said that there is something else that he was not revealing now.
“The gentleman you are talking to tonight was the man who was offered — I am saying offered because at that time they didn’t have a voting system,” Browne told iWitness News of himself.
“… whoever was in charge of the society, they would pass it on to somebody of trust, somebody they are confident in. At the time when Mr. Prescott got the society, he got it because I refused.”
iWitness News understands that a government regulator told the meeting that the society should have paid out more than $100,000 in December.
But Browne told iWitness News that he understand that the society’s liabilities are greater than its assets.
He, however, said he is just “willing to serve because I would like to see the society [continue].
“I went to that society lodge as a preschooler… I saw dances there, I went to dances there, I went to weddings, I went to Sunday school in that building there.
“So, it behoves me tonight, why we have that building so shabby and dilapidated after 72 years in operation. So even this thing came up, I am going back to the managers all the years before. What were they doing? What they did with the society’s money all these years for 72 years? So you can blame one man today, but what about those before?”
The society’s bylaws say there should be annual meetings and quarterly meetings to update members.
Browne said that some of the members, especially only the ones who would not qualify to join another friendly society, want their society to continue, but others are also struggling with issues of trust.
“They will not trust anyone else. Not even me, who I believe people should trust,” Browne said.
Among members who believe that the society should continue is Treval Ollivierre, who was very vocal at the meeting in December at which Prescott said he had misappropriated the funds.
“You can’t mek one mangy sheep spoil the whole flock,” Ollivierre said, even as he admitted that he too has been delinquent in following up on what was being done with his contributions.
“The way that our friendly society has been running for the past 40-, 50-something years is like a mauby shop. Nobody was knowing what was going on. Even me was like a donkey to a standpipe; never knew what’s going on,” he said, adding that since his mother joined him as a child, he continued to pay his contributions.
“It’s like carrying my money over a ditch until this dispute happened, then you know what was happening to the society for the past 20, 30, 40 years.”
Ollivierre, however, empathised with the elderly members of the society who cannot join another because of their age.
“For all the years, they have been in this society — Wise and Prudent Friendly Society. And it’s just as cheap we just continue,” Ollivierre told iWitness News, adding that regulators told the meeting that the society has about EC$11,000 in the bank and a property valued about EC$70,000
He noted that members have the privilege of choosing the executive and have been promised more regular meetings.
The Financial Services Authority, which regulates non-commercial banks and financial institutions, will monitor the board, Ollivierre told iWitness News.