Sophia Harris resigned as chairwoman of the Business Staffing Plan Board last week.
When contacted, Mrs. Harris confirmed she had e-mailed a two-week notice of resignation from the BSPB on Saturday 30 June, and followed it up with a hand-delivered hard copy last Wednesday.
Mrs. Harris said she resigned because of the government’s inaction in removing another member of the BSPB, Johann Moxam, who she felt had conducted himself ‘at worst illegally and at best inappropriately’ concerning his interactions with the board and members of the public.
The resignation follows a 15 June story in Cayman Net News in which it was suggested – without attribution – that a BSPB member was accusing Mrs. Harris of using her position to influence board decisions.
The Business Staffing Plan Board is body empowered by the Immigration Law to deal with the work permits of companies that employ 15 or more work permit holders. It also approves business staffing plans for those companies and key employee applications. While Mrs. Harris is the chairwoman, she does not vote on decisions made by the board.
Mrs. Harris vehemently denied the allegation that she misused her position in any way. She did, however, confirm that she has had a problem with Mr. Moxam for several reasons.
The first reason involved Mr. Moxam’s blind copying of e-mail correspondence between himself, Mrs. Harris and several other BSPB members to a member of the public.
‘This was a breach of confidentiality and an illegality,’ Mrs. Harris said. ‘The confidential correspondence of board members had been compromised.’
Shortly after the November 2006 incident, Mrs. Harris wrote to Attorney General Sam Bulgin about the matter, and included the proof that the correspondence had been blind copied to a member of the public. To date, Mrs. Harris said she has not received a written response to her letter.
Mrs. Harris said she also had another incident with Mr. Moxam in late April involving a matter before the BSPB. An applicant for a key employee had asked for the board to reconsider its previous negative decision.
The board asked if it could reconsider one of its decisions and Mrs. Harris told the members it could do so.
Mrs. Harris said reconsidering a board’s decision is not inappropriate.
‘It happens on all the boards,’ she said. ‘It’s done all the time as a matter of practicability.’
Mr. Moxam apparently took exception to reconsidering the application, however he did not directly confront Mrs. Harris about it. Instead, he wrote an e-mail to former Work Permit Board Chairman David Ritch asking – without giving specifics as to who he was talking about or of the finer details of the matter – whether there were any provisions in the law for a board decision to be reconsidered, and about what actions could be deemed a conflict of interest.
Mr. Ritch responded to the e-mail by saying that there were no provisions in the law about a board reconsidering a decision, and that the circumstances described by Mr. Moxam would be a conflict of interest.
Mr. Moxam then took Mr. Ritch’s response and forwarded it to all of the BSPB members with the exception of Mrs. Harris. Another board member forwarded Mr. Moxam’s e-mail to Mrs. Harris.
‘It was the first I had heard about any concerns about a conflict of interest,’ Mrs. Harris said. ‘How [Mr. Moxam] had gone about it was outrageous.’
Mrs. Harris said the conflict of interest issue arose because the applicant whose application for a key employee was turned down by the BSPB was represented in corporate matters by Mrs. Harris’s law firm Solomon Harris.
Mrs. Harris said she was unaware at the time that one of the 14 lawyers in her firm was doing some corporate restructuring work for the applicant. She pointed out, however, that her firm was not representing the applicant with regard to its Business Staffing Plan or other Immigration matters.
In the particular instance, the applicant had requested key employee status for only four of its more than 100 work permit holders. The person for whom the application was made faced the seven year term limit before being able to reapply after three months, so Mrs. Harris said she felt the fair thing for the board to do was reconsider the application, particularly in view of the fact that the applicant had appeared before the board to address its concerns
The board did reconsider the application, and turned it down once again. Mrs. Harris said that was the end of the matter.
BSPB Deputy Chairman Mario Ebanks said he did not know about the possible conflict of interest during the meeting in which it arose.
‘Basically, I was not aware of it until after the fact.’
However, Mr. Ebanks said that once the issue was raised, he felt it was incumbent to discuss the matter directly with Mrs. Harris.
‘We’re both Rotarians and we have our four-way test,’ he said.
The Rotary test asks, is it the truth, is it fair to all concerned, will it build goodwill and better friendships and will it be beneficial to all concerned.
Mr. Ebanks confirmed Mrs. Harris’s basic recollection of the events surrounding the matter.
Asked whether he believed Mrs. Harris did not know that someone in her firm was working with the applicant, Mr. Ebanks said: ‘I suppose it’s possible for a firm to have that kind of situation.’
At a subsequent meeting in which the board dealt with a separate matter with the firm in question, Mrs. Harris recused herself and left the room.
Mrs. Harris said she has also since learned that her firm is handling Business Staffing Plans for four applicants. When one of them came before the board, she recused herself. The other three applications have yet to come before the board.
‘Whenever I have had a conflict of interest where I was personally aware of the conflict, I have recused myself and left the room, and I certainly required the same of any other board member,’ she said.
Another incident concerning Mr. Moxam that led to Mrs. Harris believing he was not appropriate to serve on the BSPB concerned a text message he sent to another board member.
‘It used the word ‘death’ no less than four times and ended with ‘death to all white men in the Congo’. Mrs. Harris said the board member who received the e-mail had told her about it.
‘I told him, ‘don’t send it to me… send it to the authorities’.’
Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts called the situation between Mr. Harris and Mr. Moxam regrettable.
‘We were aware of the issues between them,’ he said. ‘We sat down and spoke to them both individually.
‘We believed the issues had been resolved, so Mrs. Harris’ resignation came as a surprise.’
Mr. Tibbetts said he had no evidence of any conflict of interest concerning Mrs. Harris’ activities on the BSPB.
Contacted in Europe, Mr. Moxam did not respond to all of Mrs. Harris’ comments.
He did, however, express surprise that Mrs. Harris had resigned.
‘Sophia, [Chief Immigration Officer] Franz Manderson and I had a meeting two or three weeks ago,’ he said. ‘I laid my issues on the table. We agreed to disagree and get on with the business of the Business Staffing Plan Board.
‘We shook hands and I thought everything was agreed upon.’
Mr. Manderson agreed with Mr. Moxam’s assessment of the meeting.
‘As far as I’m concerned, everything was resolved,’ he said.
Mrs. Harris, however, said she never agreed to continue working on the BSPB with Mr. Moxam.
‘I told [Mr. Moxam] at the meeting that I suspected the only reason he wasn’t removed from the board was because he was a member of the PPM,’ she said. ‘I told him he had jeopardised the integrity of the board. Does that sound like we agreed to disagree?’
With regard to the text message, Mr. Moxam said it was a passage out of a slapstick movie.
‘It was just Johann talking between friends,’ he said, admitting the juvenile nature of the exchange and adding that he was not serious about the content of the message.