Tourism Minister Charles Clifford and Cayman Airways CEO Patrick Strasberger did not abuse the power of their offices, according to a ruling by Complaints Commissioner John Epp.
The ruling came in connection with a decision by the CAL board of directors to cancel a contract for air delivery of Cayman Net News to the Cayman Islands.
Mr. Epp said claims made by Net News publisher Desmond Seales that the two men tried to prevent the delivery of the newspaper because of ‘certain unflattering news reports’ were unfounded.
The Office of the Complaints Commissioner conducted what Mr. Epp said was a particularly strenuous investigation into the complaint. He declined to release his office’s report on the matter, and is not required to table the document in the Legislative Assembly.
‘We looked at: ‘Was there an abuse of power?” Mr. Epp said. ‘Neither of these two gentlemen had anything to do with the ending of service to Cayman Net Ltd (the company that operates the Net News).’
Minister Clifford announced in September during a Legislative Assembly meeting that Cayman Airways shipments of the Net News from where it is printed in Miami to Grand Cayman and from Grand Cayman to the Sister Islands would be suspended immediately until the newspaper made good on a shipping debt.
Mr. Clifford said at the time that the debt was about $50,000. That amount has been disputed by Mr. Seales, who has said much less is owed.
Shipments of the newspaper to Grand Cayman are now being made on another airline.
Mr. Clifford has responsibility for Cayman Airways under his ministry, but he does not sit on the airline’s board and does not get a vote in its decisions.
‘I said from the very beginning that this complaint was frivolous and unfounded,’ Mr. Clifford wrote in an e-mail response to Caymanian Compass questions. ‘It was nothing more than a smokescreen by the publisher of Cayman Net News to take the attention away from the facts of this matter which clearly demonstrate that Cayman Airways stopped doing business with Cayman Net News because of the significant outstanding debt which that newspaper owes to our national flag carrier.’
Mr. Strasberger had not returned calls for comment on the complaints commissioner’s investigation by press time.
Mr. Seales has said that his newspaper was allowed to accumulate the shipping debt in the difficult days following Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Mr. Clifford said a new agreement had been worked out in July 2007 to allow interest-free payments on a regularly scheduled basis from Cayman Net Ltd. to CAL.
CAL Board Chairperson Angelyn Hernandez and an airline spokesperson have both declined to comment on the business arrangement.
Mr. Epp said his investigation did not review the contract between the airline and the newspaper because the Complaints Commissioner Law does not allow that, except in cases which involve the acquisition or sale of land by government.
The newspaper’s shipping debt was not the only reason the contract was ended, according to Mr. Clifford.
During the statement he made to the Legislative Assembly in September, Mr. Clifford also said Cayman Airways’ Board of Directors was outraged at the behaviour of Mr. Seales at the airline’s headquarters.
Mr. Clifford said the newspaper publisher showed up there on Saturday, 15 September demanding to know why his Friday editions had not been shipped to Cayman Brac. The delay in shipping involved a regularly scheduled payment owed to CAL which the minister said was paid late by Mr. Seales.
Both the airline and Mr. Clifford have claimed Mr. Seales was aggressive and verbally abusive toward Cayman Airways staff.
‘He told the agents he would take their photos along with their names and publish them on the front page of his paper,’ Mr. Clifford told the Legislative Assembly. ‘The board of directors feel the treatment staff received at the hands of Mr. Desmond Seales (on 15 September) is reprehensible, and in fact, the last straw.’
Net News Corporate Affairs Manager Lyndon Martin has said the newspaper considered it ‘highly unfortunate’ that government took a private commercial matter into the public domain, and said the issue was not comprehensively conveyed.
The newspaper reported in September that CAL staff at first refused to accept a cash payment of $65.10 to cover shipping charges on 15 September, but stated that payment was eventually accepted ‘after much persistence’ by Mr. Seales.
The shipment of the 14 September editions was made three days late.
In a Thursday, 3 January article in his own newspaper, Mr. Seales said it was ‘disappointing that the complaints commissioner apparently took so little account of… significant circumstantial evidence’ in his investigation.
Mr. Seales said the matter would be taken up again in ‘another forum.’ He declined to make further comment to the Compass.
Mr. Epp said his office conducted a thorough investigation into the areas it is allowed to probe by law, which included some 20 interviews with Cayman Airways staff and management. He said the airline cooperated fully in the case.
‘This investigation was particularly strenuous given the volume of material considered and number of witnesses to be spoken to,’ he said.