By DENISE MAYCOCK
Tribune Freeport Reporter
THE Cooper family – the operators of several major fast food franchise restaurants in Freeport - has “categorically and emphatically” denied any wrongdoing concerning the alleged theft of electricity by the Grand Bahama Power Company.
The family said yesterday that close to 500 jobs are at stake due to the disconnection of power supply at their businesses. A total of seven businesses – three Burger Kings, three KFCs, and one Pollo Tropical location – have been implicated in the theft investigation. The Cooper family claimed the controversy is due to widely used energy saving devices installed at the businesses in question, not electricity theft.
Power supply was turned off since last Wednesday after the GBPC filed a complaint with police. All of the businesses are now operating with “limited power” on emergency generators.
In addition to the possibility of hundreds being unemployed, this could damage the owners’ business reputation which could result in the loss of licences from the various international franchise brands.
The family held a press conference yesterday at Precious Acres – the headquarters for their respective businesses. Paxton Cooper, Kenneth Symonette, and Elvis Burrows spoke on behalf of the Cooper family. Their attorney, Carlson Shurland, was also present.
“The Cooper family is deeply saddened by the latest spate of events concerning our family and the issues involving the alleged theft of electricity from GBPC,” said Mr Burrows.
“Nothing can be further from the truth. On behalf of the Cooper family, we wish to emphatically and categorically deny any wrongdoing in this matter. We contracted a licensee of the GBPA, with a certificate of good standing, for the installation of an energy saving device that, to the best of our knowledge, was widely used by other businesses on the island.
“Our family has always operated our businesses with the highest degree of honesty and integrity. These are the core values that our businesses are built on. We are very distressed by the latest development in these matters as most of our fast food restaurants have been disconnected, and as of now we are still without power.”
In a statement issued on Friday, GBPC said it filed a police complaint after it uncovered a series of suspected electricity diversions during metre audits at a number of businesses in the Freeport area.
“As per our established protocols,” the GBPC statement read, “we have taken immediate steps to isolate those customers from our electrical grid and formally lodged a complaint of suspected theft to the Royal Bahamas Police Force. The RBPF has officially launched an investigation and to our knowledge persons are assisting the police in this matter.
“At this time it is unclear the number of GBPC customers involved, but there is evidence that other businesses and residential locations are also utilising this practice and we are working with the RBPF to further assess this matter.
“At this time, our primary concern is the serious safety risk these diversions pose to the public and GBPC employees and the need to regularise these businesses.”
Mr Burrows, Mr Cooper and Mr Symonette said that they were arrested on Friday and questioned by CDU officers in reference to the alleged electricity theft. They reported to police at 11am on Friday and were later released late that evening between 7pm to midnight.
“Because of this, we have retained the services of an attorney to represent us of what appears to be a developing criminal matter,” Mr Burrows said.
“We have given both the GB Power and CDU free access to our businesses and have been cooperating fully with them in these matters.
“Again, we have nothing to hide for we have done nothing wrong. We are completely innocent in these matters, and wish and want to bring this matter to conclusion and have our power and our good name restored,” he said.
When asked by The Tribune whether the device they had installed at their respective businesses was legal, Mr Shurland said that the family entered into a legitimate contract with a reputable licencee of the Grand Bahama Port Authority.
He said that he has attempted to reach the licencee, but has been unable to find him. Mr Shurland also believes his clients are being unfairly targeted and said that many other businesses and residents on the island are using the same energy saving device, and that the police and the power company know who they are and are not pursuing them.
Asked if they had got approval from GBPC to use the device, Mr Shurland said: “You don’t need approval to use an energy saving device, that is not standard operating procedures. Do you get approval to change the wattage in your light bulbs?”
Meanwhile, Mr Burrows said that the cost of power is high in Grand Bahama, and that their power bills represent a very substantial cost on their books. After having installed the device several years ago, he said that they had noticed some savings but nothing significant.
He declined, however, to say how much they had spent or invested to have the devices installed at their businesses.
The device was one of many initiatives that they had embarked on, in addition to LED lighting and investing in more energy efficient equipment.
“To the best of our knowledge the device was supposed to regulate the equipment in the restaurants and produce cost saving initiative when it is in operation —I am not an electrician,” Mr Burrows said.
“We have been interrupted since Wednesday evening and we are still interrupted, and I say with all sincerity, unless our power is restored in a reasonable time we have no choice but to shut our stores down because we are on limited power on emergency generators and I don’t know what will happen to our close to 500 employees that we employ collectively among ourselves. But if our power is not restored soon, we just can’t push it anymore.”
He added: “This whole issue of theft and stealing is just ludicrous.”
Mr Cooper, who operates Pollo Tropical and Burger King on East Sunrise Highway and Ranfurly Circus, said he could lose his franchise licence over the matter.
“We had persons from Pollo Tropical International call us to find out what is happening and we have explained to them all what is going on because the contract talks about if found guilty of any criminal offence you can lose your franchise,” he said.
For his part, Mr Symonette said the business owners are being “dragged” through the mud over unproven allegations.
“Among our businesses we have about 500 employees, and people are just dragging our names through the mud over something we have not been found guilty of, and they do not know the complete truth about. When we hire someone in our businesses – we are not a big company like BORCO or the Container Port, but we have been consistent in this community for years.
“And people are ungrateful to say the things they are saying. When we pay someone a salary they are able to buy food and send their children to school with lunch; we are helping this community more than we are hurting. And we have been consistent because some of our businesses have been in this community for some over 50 years, and we don’t deserve to the way we have been treated by the Power Company, or some of our people on this island,” he said.