The closed Lotto booth on Tragarete Road, Port-of-Spain.

With many not able to access grants or assistance during the second lockdown of the pandemic, close to 150 lotto agents, who were caught in a financial bind, utilised $6 million of the National Lotteries Control Board (NLCB) funds to pay their rents, bills, loans and sustained themselves.

The group of 150 agents is only a fraction of 1,200 who will not be reopening today, as NLCB has taken the decision to deactivate their machines until they can repay the outstanding sum.

Yesterday, chairman of the Lotto Agents’ Committee Dean Persad pleaded with NLCB’s chairman Eustace Nancis to come to a comprise by reactivating the machines and allowing the agents to sign a payment plan to repay NLCB.

But Nancis, in a telephone interview with Guardian Media, said the NLCB was not a “slush fund” and they have already taken legal action against a few of the agents to recover the Government’s money.

In May, Government shut down all NLCB’s operations which threw 2,400 operators and agents on the breadline.

“I must tell you that during the lockdown some agents used the money they were supposed to deposit to NLCB because of the dire straights that they were in. In some cases the last deposit before the shut down those agents would have had to utilise that for their own purpose,” Persad admitted yesterday in a telephone interview.

Persad said from his calculations, 150 of the agents used NLCB’s money to sustain themselves and pay their rent, bills and loans.

He estimated each agent spent between “$35,000 to $40,000” which totalled $6 million.

The $6 million was from bets placed by punters on NLCB online games such as Play Whe, Pick 2, Pick 4, Cash Pot and Lotto Plus.

Utility bills are also paid at the terminals.

Persad admitted the $6 million was a large figure.

“It is. The agents used the money to carry them through for the three months. The lockdown brought untold hardship to them. Yes, they misappropriated your funds and we are willing to make an agreement to pay these funds. We can only pay these funds if we are able to operate the machines.”

Persad said many of the agents argued they had no choice but to spend NLCB’s funds to keep them going.

“We have a lot of agents who depend solely on the operations of the machines for survival. But we are hoping that good sense would prevail and both sides so we can come to an amicable settlement.”

Persad said many of the agents put forward the argument that they paid their rent at malls and bars which remain closed.

“That was our responsibility to safeguard NLCB’s machines while the country is on lockdown.”

He said the agents and operators had asked for income support and salary relief grants from the Government to help them make ends meet but they were denied funding.

He said if NLCB continues to keep the machines inoperable “it would end up in a loss-loss situation on both sides. There is no wisdom in keeping the machines closed. NLCB will lose between $25,000 to $40,000 per week from one agent.”

If the agents are unable to pay, Persad said, the machines will be forfeited and legal action can be taken against them.

“NLCB can levy on the agents to recover their losses. We don’t want it to end this way. The agents are willing to repay the money…all we are asking NLCB is reactive the machines. But we are in a real quandary with NLCB and this is what we are fighting against.”

Persad said he wrote Nancis pleading for “a middle ground” but got no response.

Persad said only 50 per cent of the agents will reopen today.

NLCB Chairman: “Pay us our money”

Nancis said NLCB will have an urgent meeting to discuss the matter.

Going on the $6 million figure Persad provided, Nancis said, “you telling me I give you $6 million to do what you have to do.”

He called on the agents to “put their act together.”

On a weekly basis, Nancis said an agent makes an average of $4,000 based on an eight to ten per cent commission paid by NLCB

While admitting he was aware of the situation, Nancis said, “they have taken money that does not belong to them. You collected our money in good faith then pay us our money in good faith.”

He said these agents probably took the money to fund other businesses.

Regarding operators and agents not receiving grants, Nancis said “grants are not a right. I want to make it abundantly clear. One has to remember these are business people. I don’t think we will open up any door for grants. You went into business to make money.”

Nancis wondered if these agents did not put aside money for a rainy day.

“Before the pandemic, they were making money. We can’t open a Pandora’s box. People have to start to work on their own and take the responsibility that if they run a small business you try to manage your business.”

He said agents who mismanage NLCB’s money are put on a plan to repay.

“They get an opportunity to use State funds…NLCB money and then I have to put you back on a plan to get back my own money when you are supposed to pay me on a weekly basis by a certain time.”

Asked if the last resort was taking the agents to court, Nancis said, “I think we definitely…we have put some of them under …we have sent some of them (agents) to the legal department and we will take those options to retain out money back.”

Pressed if this measure was a bit harsh at this time, Nancis said, “it (money) is not yours. What is going to happen with our revenue?”

Promising to help, Nancis said they will not paint everyone with the same brush.

He said NLCB’s revenue for the month is roughly $240 million.

A press release from the Health Ministry yesterday stated the operations of NLCB will be allowed on a temporary basis.