The People’s Progressive Movement government has denied that the Constitutional Review Secretariat granted a contract worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to MCM Consultants, a public relations, marketing and communications firm connected to Cayman Net News publisher Desmond Seales.
Responding to a question at the cabinet press briefing last week, Minister Alden McLaughlin said no major contract had been awarded to MCM ‘only bits and pieces of the PR exercise’ for the Constitutional Review Secretariat.
Mr. McLaughlin acknowledged he knew of the rumour that the contract was for a large amount.
‘Someone just texted me and said Mr. Bush said it was a contract for hundreds of thousands of dollars,’ he said. ‘That is complete and utter nonsense. We don’t have that kind of budget to deal with the constitutional review process.’
The denials came after MCM issued a press release on 21 February announcing it had entered into an agreement with the Constitutional Review Secretariat of the Cayman Islands Government to develop and conduct a marketing and communications campaign for the constitutional review process and the upcoming referendum.
‘The term of reference of MCM’s assignment include launching an all-media marketing communications programme to be implemented over the next three months to encourage Caymanians and residents who are registered and entitled to vote to participate in the forthcoming referendum on constitutional reform,’ the press release stated.
Cabinet Secretary Orrett Connor, who has overall responsibility for the Constitutional Review Secretariat was quoted in the press release.
‘We recognise the need for a professional marketing communications campaign and we are delighted to be able to partner with a long-established local organisation that understands the dynamics of the Cayman Islands electorate,’ he was quoted as saying.
However, contacted last week for comment on the story, Mr. Connor denied making those remarks to MCM.
‘The quote that was attributed to me wasn’t mine,’ he said. ‘[MCM] went ahead and did that on their own. I never said that. Neither myself or Suzanne [Bothwell] authorised anything to be released.’
Mrs. Bothwell, who is the director of the Constitutional Review Secretariat, was also quoted in the press release.
When contacted for comment, the Constitutional Review Secretariat said it would issue a press release through Government Information Services about the matter.
Mr. Connor said the nature of the work being done by MCM was piecemeal.
‘It’s not a full-fledged PR contract,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t something that we deemed would require us to go out to contract [tender].’
Although Mr. Connor did not say what the value of the work done by MCM was, he said there were no huge sums of money involved.
‘There was a proposal [from MCM] that went into the $300,000 range, but we didn’t even take that into consideration.’
Mr. Connor said GIS was also helping with communications effort.
Speaking at the cabinet press briefing, Mr. McLaughlin noted that several companies had done work for the Constitutional Review Secretariat, including Cayman Free Press. The commercial printing arm of Cayman Free Press printed two of the booklets that have been produced for the constitutional modernisation process.
‘There is no exclusivity in relation to PR or any other exercise in relation to what the constitutional modernisation initiative is doing,’ Mr. McLaughlin said. ‘The Elections Office has also given [MCM] some work in connection with the registration process.’
Supervisor of Elections Kearney Gomez, however, said last week the Elections Office did not have a contract with MCM, although he acknowledged that Mr. Seales had ‘been in here with us’.
Mr. Gomez said the Elections Office was separate and apart from the Constitutional Review Secretariat, but their functions were linked by the fact they both wanted voters to register and vote in the referendum.
The issue of the change in editorial stance of Cayman Net News since the announcement of the MCM’s contract with Constitutional Review Secretariat came up during the cabinet press briefing.
Mr. Seales, who is the CEO of MCM and the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Cayman Net News, said in an interview last week that the editorial content of Cayman Net News is not influenced by MCM’s contracts with clients.
‘Hell no,’ he said. ‘As a Caymanian, over the years I have championed the need for the Cayman Islands to get to the next level in terms of an advanced government, and when I say the next level, I don’t mean the nightclub.’
Mr. Seales also questioned why his detractors had a problem with a local company getting the public relations and communications contract with government.
‘Would they rather we bring in another consultant?’ he asked
Although Mr. Seales denied there was any correlation between MCM’s contract with government and the editorial content of Cayman Net News, there was a stark change in the newspaper’s position with regard to the constitutional modernisation process over the course of February.
In an editorial from 1 February, Cayman Net News wrote ‘that it is rapidly becoming apparent that the timeframe allowed for the constitutional review process is less than adequate.’ The editorial on 28 February urged those eligible to register to vote to do so by 29 February so they could vote in the referendum planned for May.
In an editorial titled ‘Hijacking the Constitution’ on 12 February, Cayman Net News made the point that the constitutional modernisation exercise in the British Virgin Islands took almost three years from the time the Constitutional Review Commission was set up ‘which ought to give us some idea of the timeframe that should have been allowed for the process in the Cayman Islands’. The editorial also expressed ‘some sympathy’ to the United Democratic Party’s challenging the premise of governing by referendum.
More significantly, Cayman Net News wrote in an editorial on 14 February that ‘the ruling politicians of the day are certainly flirting with concepts that are bound to raise (and, indeed, already have) the spectre of independence….’ Yet in its editorial of 27 February titled ‘Independence scaremongering’, Cayman Net News stated that UDP’s assertions that a vote in favour of the PPM’s constitutional proposals would be a vote in favour of independence were ‘complete and utter nonsense and should be dismissed as specious political posturing…’
In addition, Cayman Net News published nine stories dealing with the upcoming referendum in the six editions of the newspaper between 22 and 29 February. Prior to MCM’s agreement with the Constitutional Review Secretariat, Cayman Net News‘s coverage on the constitutional review public meetings had been minimal.
Reached for comment over the weekend, Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush said it was obvious that Cayman Net News changed its editorial stance only after being given the contract from the Constitutional Review Secretariat. He also said he believes the financial arrangement with MCM is more substantial than the government is letting on and that it involves more than one government entity.
‘I’m not blaming Desmond [Seales] for getting business if it were just advertising,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘But this is more than just advertising. He’s twisting anything we say to keep it in line with what they say; like that we are changing our minds.’
On 22 February, the day after MCM announced the contract with the Constitutional Review Secretariat, Cayman Net News ran a front-page story under the headline ‘UDP urges referendum vote,’ based on a UDP meeting, claiming the UDP government had changed its position. The gist of the entire meeting, however, was that the public needed more time [see 21 February Caymanian Compass story ‘UDP wants more time‘]
‘We have not changed our story,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘What we’ve always said is that if the people don’t know, and if the PPM doesn’t push the election back until at least November, then the people should vote no.’
Mr. Bush said he felt the referendum should really be pushed back until May 2009.
‘It would save the country millions of dollars if they held it when they have the general election,’ he said.
Mr. Bush said the PPM was suffering from ‘goal displacement’ with the hiring of MCM to promote the referendum.
‘They displaced an offer of service for private ownership using public resources,’ he said. ‘That’s what is so wrong about this.’
Mr. Bush also disagrees with the open-ended nature of the contract, and the fact that it has not been advertised or tendered.
During the cabinet press briefing, Minister McLaughlin said the contract with MCM was only open-ended in a sense that MCM was being asked to do specific things.
‘Each thing that they’re doing is a separate arrangement; there’s no open ended contract…’ he said. ‘MCM’s advice has been sought in relation to some marketing strategies and so forth and they get paid for that. Open-ended is probably the wrong expression; if you say an on-going relationship – that is probably more accurate.
Mr. Bush disagreed with the assertion the contract was not open ended.
‘They’re not being open and transparent about this,’ he said.
Caymanian Compass journalist Brent Fuller contributed to this story.